Liberals lay out $8B 'families' platform

The Liberals put families front-and-centre in their platform unveiled in an online town hall Sunday, with a five-point plan to strengthen families as its centrepiece.

Ignatieff says mix of social spending, tax credits will be done without raising personal taxes

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff conducts a town hall to announce his party's $8-billion platform. CBC

The Liberals put families front-and-centre in their election platform unveiled Sunday, a two-year plan that would spend more than $8 billion and pledges to help put Canadians on a more equal footing.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff launched the party's new platform, titled "Your Family. Your Future. Your Canada," at a town hall event in Ottawa where he took questions from an audience, and online, before taking the Liberal tour to Halifax for a rally there Sunday evening.

The platform includes major policies that have already been announced on post-secondary education, child care, and looking after sick relatives, for example, and some new promises such as a permanent home renovation tax credit and a hiring incentive aimed at youth and small businesses.

The 94-page book is split into five chapters and the Liberals are billing "The Liberal Family Pack" as its centrepiece.

Ignatieff said the Family Pack policies will "make a huge difference to the real lives of the Canadians who are going to decide this election."

At a news conference following the launch of the platform, Ignatieff said his policies would be implemented quickly, in contrast to those promised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"These are policies which we can begin to put into place beginning with a Liberal budget (as) soon after that election as possible," Ignatieff said.

The set of policies aimed at families includes:

  • The Learning Passport plan, which would invest $1,000 over four years in the Registered Education Savings Plans of high school students, and $1,500 for low-income students. It would cost close to $1 billion.
  • The Early Childhood Learning and Care Fund, estimated to cost $1.2 billion over two years, for the provinces to create new child care spaces and train staff.
  • The Family Care plan involves a tax benefit for those caring for elderly parents or sick relatives worth up to $1,350 and an Employment Insurance benefit allowing caregivers to take up to six months off work
  • Enhancing the Canada Pension Plan and investing $700 million to boost the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low-income seniors
  • The Green Renovation Tax Credit, a permanent tax credit for homeowners of up to $13,500, would cost $400 million.

"We're offering these policies to Canadians and we're saying we can deliver these practical benefits to Canadian families without raising your taxes," Ignatieff said during the town hall event.

The Conservatives called the Liberal plan a "high-spending, high-tax agenda" that will kill jobs. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty reacted to the platform Sunday afternoon by saying the promises are not affordable without raising taxes and he said there are major holes in the Liberals' fiscal plan.

"There is no plan to get to a balanced budget," Flaherty said.

Plan 'fully costed'

The Liberals say their plan is fully costed and "will cost less overall than the course the Harper government is on."

The Liberals are committing to reducing the deficit to one per cent of GDP within two years, down from 3.6 in 2009-2010, but the platform doesn't specify when the deficit would be eliminated. Instead, there would be rolling deficit reduction targets.

Under the Liberal plan, $7 billion in funds would be freed up by the second year and $3 billion of that would be set aside in a "Prudence Fund." Acting as a sort of "rainy day" fund, if the money wasn't needed for unforseen costs, it would go towards eliminating the deficit. 

The first year of the Liberal plan would involve $2.6 billion in program spending, with $5.5 billion in the second year.

The Liberals say they would pay for the spending by raising corporate tax rates back up to the 2010 level of 18 per cent. The platform announced Sunday also promises to cut costs by canceling the Public Private Partnership Infrastructure Fund, brought in by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, saving more than $500 million.

The Liberals also plan to cancel corporate tax breaks for oil sands development, and limit tax breaks on stock options. They say the current deductions disproportionately benefit the wealthy; the party would cap the amount that can be claimed at $50,000 annually, saving an estimated $600 million over two years.

The Liberals say they would also use money from a future wireless spectrum auction and find savings by conducting federal program spending reviews.

A pledge to save money by cancelling a deal for 65 fighter jets is not included in the platform, Ignatieff said, because it would not affect spending in the first two years.

Flaherty accused Ignatieff and the Liberals of backtracking on previous support for corporate tax cuts, and he also said the Liberal leader is backing away from support for the proposed high-speed rail corridor between Windsor and Montreal.

Ignatieff said Sunday he would love to see the high-speed rail line built, but he said it is currently unaffordable because of the "Conservative deficit." 

"I'm in a $56-billion hole that I didn't dig. So I want to study the issue with the provinces and municipalities, figure out at what point we'll be able to afford that," Ignatieff said at a news conference following the town hall. "We certainly can't afford it now."

Similarly, the Liberals have said they are in favour of corporate tax cuts when they are affordable.

Some similarities to Conservative budget

The Liberal leader was asked why there is no reference in the platform to the HST compensation deal currently being negotiated with Quebec. Ignatieff said that deal is still being worked on and that there is room in their fiscal plan to fund it, but he didn't elaborate. Quebec wants $2.2 billion in compensation from Ottawa for harmonizing its provincial sales tax with the federal GST in the 1990s. There was no mention of the HST deal in the recent Conservative budget.

The Liberal platform has other elements in common with that budget, which was rejected by all of the opposition parties. The Liberals are also promising a tax credit for volunteer firefighters worth up to $3,000, though the Liberal one would be refundable.

The Conservative budget also brought back the popular home renovation tax credit. The new Green Renovation Tax Credit promised by the Liberals is a permanent program that would allow homeowners to claim a tax credit on expenses of up to $13,500 when they make energy efficient renovations. A home energy audit would be required, and a Liberal government would cover half the cost. The Liberals are touting it as a family-friendly policy.

"You reduce your energy costs, you do something for the environment, and you're going to create a whole new green industry," Ignatieff said about the tax credit.

The last Liberal platform was heavy on the environment, with its "Green Shift" program, but this time, it's not as a strong a focus.

Environment-related promises include the oil sands measures, bringing back the Renewable Power Production Incentive cancelled by the Conservatives to give incentives to renewable power companies, a national water policy to clean up contaminated ground water and a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

On health, the Liberals are promising to bring new doctors to rural areas, work on lowering the costs for prescription drugs, invest in the Canadian Healthy Brain Strategy and in a program to help children from low-income families access healthy foods.

The Liberals also promise small and medium-sized businesses a break on EI premiums when they hire youth aged 18 to 25. The measure is expected to cost $130 to $160 million.

Promises include 'people's question period'

Also in the Liberal platform:

  • $180 million over four years to create a new Canada Service Corps to encourage volunteerism, which will involve forgiving $1,500 in student loans for young Canadians who volunteer.
  • The Liberals would bring back the Court Challenges Program cancelled by the Conservatives.
  • The Liberal government would direct Elections Canada to develop online voting as an option for Canadians.
  • A "people’s question period," where the prime minister and cabinet would respond directly to the public’s questions in a weekly online session.
  • Setting a goal of 100 per cent high-speed internet in rural areas.
  • $550 million for affordable housing
  • $300,000 for a Community Heroes Fund for the families of fallen officers
  • bringing back the long-form census

The Liberals are the first party to release their full platform.

Harper announces fitness tax break

Earlier Sunday, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said he would double the children's fitness tax credit from $500 to $1,000.

"But we will do more, we will also extend the children's fitness tax credit to cover adults," Harper said during an event at a fitness centre in the Ottawa area.

He said that a re-elected Conservative government would introduce a $500 fitness tax credit for adults. Like the  Conservative income-spllitting proposal, the new measure wouldn't be implemented until the budget is balanced, which is expected to occur in 2015-16.

"This will lower the cost of those New Year's resolutions," he said.

Ignatieff was quick to criticize the Conservatives for making a promise that wouldn't be implemented for years.

"It's going to be a long wait in the locker room is all I can say," the Liberal leader said.

Harper was asked about the defacing of an Ottawa-area Liberal candidate's election signs. He said defacing of other candidates' signs is "never acceptable by any campaign."

"Our campaign does not have the time to do that," he said. "We've got enough to do to get our own signs up because we have lots of demand for signs all across the country."

Nepean-Carleton candidate Ryan Keon said Saturday about 100 of his signs were spray-painted with target symbols and profanity. Keon said he has referred the matter to Ottawa police.

After his announcement in Ottawa, Harper was scheduled to travel to a rally in London, Ont.

Layton pushes health care

NDP Leader Jack Layton, appearing at a campaign event in Gatineau, Que., talked about health care and repeated his pledge made Friday to push for more doctors and nurses.

Latyon asked the crowd who they would like to lead the next round of health-care negotiations with the provinces, saying he had "a lot of concerns about what would happen if Mr. Harper was responsible for those negotiations and discussions."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe  was in Sherbrooke and Dunham, Que., on Sunday.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was in Sidney, B.C., and Saanich, B.C.