THE POLICY: In their 102-page 1997 Red Book, the liberals have, once again, tried to be all things to all people: deficit-fighters, protectors of social programs and tax-cutters. The new Red Book trumpets the party’s success in lowering the annual deficit from $42 billion to the point that Canada will “no longer have to borrow new money” in 1998. It outlines $6.5 billion in new spending between 19971998 and 2001-2002, including the cancellation of $5.4 billion in planned cuts to provincial cash transfers. It says that this money will fund health care. And it promises that after the
"It's as though the Prime Minister, after making bouillabaisse, is announcing that he's going to put the fish back together. "
Conservative Leader Jean Charest on the Liberals’ promise of health-care funding
budget is balanced—which most economists expect in 1999-2000— any surplus will be split: one-half will fund social programs, while one-half will be used to pay down Canada’s $610-billion accumulated debt and provide a long-awaited tax cut.
THE REALITY: The Liberals do deserve credit for their progress against the deficit. According to the most recent figures, between April, 1996, and February, 1997, the deficit was only $7.8 billion—that is I $15.5 billion lower than it was dur0 ing the same period in the previous 1 year. The total deficit for 1996-1997 « will likely hover around $14 bil| lion—an impressive achievement. “■ But how did the Liberals do it?
Largely at someone else’s expense. Between 1993-1994 and 1997-1998, total tax revenues have gone up 23 per cent. The take from personal income taxes is up 29 per cent. The pickings from corporate taxes are up a staggering 72 per cent. During the same period, though, federal cash transfers to the provinces for health, education and welfare have plummeted 34 per cent—to $12.5 billion from $18.8 billion. And in their own backyard, the Liberals have cut departmental spending by only 13 per cent. (They actually sliced more than that—but then could not resist the temptation to spend more than $2 billion on such projects as the extension of the infrastructure program.) Lower interest
rates have also shaved billions off the deficit, making the Liberals’ job that much easier.
With the deficit almost eliminated, the Red Book now positions the federal government as the prudent white knight dedicated to protecting social programs. After cutting annual cash transfers to the beleaguered provinces, the Liberals now proclaim that they will not make further cuts to health-care payments. Those cuts—if they had been made—would have totalled $5.4 billion over four years. In effect, the Liberals are patting themselves on the back for not exacerbating the provinces’ problems. Worse, they cannot guarantee that the provinces will use this money for health care: transfer payments are block grants that the provinces can use for anything—even tax cuts.
The 1997 Red Book’s remaining $ 1.1-billion array of new promises, stretched out over six chapters and four years, offers something for everyone. There is $240 million for grants to students with dependants; $100 million for urban aboriginal youth centres; $120 million for community crime prevention; $10 million for new works of art to celebrate the new century; $136 million to expand the industrial research assistance program.
What remains unstated is one fact: despite their vague promise of tax cuts, the Liberals are across-the-board spenders. They had a choice: that $6.5 billion in well-hyped spending could have been used to lower Employment Insurance premiums or personal income taxes. The Liberals opted to spend the so-called deficit dividend rather than return it to the taxpayers. Despite their rhetoric, that is their reality.
"Voters are not going to be fooled into thinking that a government that steals your purse like a petty thief and then offers you bus fare to get home is actually addressing your needs. "
NDP Leader Alexa McDonough
"Looking at this, it's goodbye Red Book, hello chequebook."
Reform party Leader Preston Manning on the Liberals’ campaign platform
"If I knew, it would be one employee less."
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien on the leak of his party’s platform to Reform
THE GREY AREA OF ELECTION PAY
Who pays the salary of ministerial staff during an election campaign? Does being in power—and having access to the resources of government—unduly favor the Liberals? Under the Elections Act, payroll costs for campaign-related work must be paid by the party. But if the rules are clear, the reality is murky. ‘There is a very wide grey area,” says Jean-Marc Hamel, who until 1990 spent 24 years as Canada’s chief electoral officer. “It is, in effect, an honor system.” The problem is that political staff must often split their time between ministerial work and electioneering—and determining how much time is spent on each activity is nearly impossible. Besides, say former ministerial aides, there are ways to work around the rules. One is to give ministerial staff government-paid time off for their campaign work. Another is to grant them leaves of absence to work on the campaign—and Elections Canada has no way of finding out whether those leaves are paid or unpaid.
Scant attention has been paid to the matter—perhaps because nobody in the major parties has ever raised much of a fuss. Most opposition MPs have small staffs and find themselves in the same position as the ruling party at election time.
Still, the Liberals have been at pains to at least appear that they are playing by the rules. According to one ministerial aide, ministers were briefed by Hugh Wilson, Jean Chrétien’s adviser on ethics, 10 days before the election call. They were told—in no uncertain terms—that
any staff involved in work for the campaign must be on an unpaid leave of absence. “It was a stern warning,” said the aide, “hardline all the way.” Peter Donolo, the Prime Minister’s communications director, says that everyone working on the Liberal campaign is being paid out of party funds. “I still do my ministerial work,” he adds, “but I’m taking an unpaid leave of absence.”
Still, opposition MPs remain suspicious. Reformer Deborah Grey—who has only one person from her office working on her campaign, but he is on unpaid leave—says that she has already heard “horror stories” about the Liberals’ use of staff. “Unfortunately, they are trying to slice and dice their way around the act,” Grey says. “You have to be concerned about it.”
The launch had been set for last Thursday in Ottawa. But Preston Manning beat the Liberals to the punch by unveiling a leaked copy of their 1997 campaign platform, “Securing Our Future Together,” to the media two days early during a visit to Quebec City. Liberal organizers were forced to scramble and reschedule their official launch to Wednesday. Putting a positive spin on the incident, red-faced party officials said it had given their platform even more publicity.
TAXES UP, DEFICIT DOWN
The New Democrats launched their official platform in Toronto. Among the major planks: reducing the unemployment rate to 5.4 per cent in four years and increasing social spending by $18.8 billion. Those costs would be offset by higher taxes—corporations and high-income earners, for example, would pay a larger share—and increased revenues from economic growth. As a result, the platform says, the federal budget would be balanced by the year 2001.
BOUCHARD SPEAKS UP
In an effort to shore up support for the Bloc Québécois, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard stepped into the federal election campaign. “I ask you to work for the Bloc candidates,” he told 600 supporters at the nomination meeting for Yves Duhaime, who is running against Jean Chrétien in the riding of St-Maurice.
“It is the future of Quebec that will be decided in this election.” Most observers agreed that the BQ campaign got off to a less than stellar start. At week’s end, leader Gilles Duceppe arrived for an Eastern Townships appearance—only to find that the BQ media bus had gotten lost.
THE COUNT CONTINUES
Elections Canada reported that, as of week’s end, 18,753,094 Canadians had registered for the June 2 election. Those names will be included on a new, permanent voters list that will be continually updated and used for all future elections, byelections and referendums. Voters who have not yet registered have until May 26 to do so. But unregistered voters can still vote if they arrive at their voting station with proper identification.
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