Canada

At last, an issue to chew on

Ian Urquhart April 30 1979
Canada

At last, an issue to chew on

Ian Urquhart April 30 1979

At last, an issue to chew on

Canada

ELECTION '79

Ian Urquhart

Shaking off the lethargy of the Easter break, the party leaders resumed campaigning last week with a distinct British Columbia accent (see story overleaf). Both Conservative leader Joe Clark and NDP leader Ed Broadbent were in B.C. and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau plans to spend most of this week in the province, reasserting the importance all three parties put on winning its key ridings. During his visit, Clark encountered flak for his alleged deal with the provincial Socreds and his abandonment of Victor Stephens, the B.C. Tory leader. Broadbent, to underline the relative unity of his own party, spent a day playing Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee with provincial NDP leader Dave Barrett as the two appeared together at four separate events in Vancouver.

But, for the first time since the election was called March 26, an issue—not a television image—dominated the campaign: Clark’s seven-month-old

proposal to allow homeowners to deduct up to $5,000 in mortgage payments and $1,000 in property taxes from their taxable income every year. In successive days, the proposal was the subject of two reports. The first report—commissioned by a real estate lobby and written by David Greenspan, a Toronto lawyer and a Liberal—praised Clark’s proposal and begged Liberals to “turn cartwheels” to adopt something similar. But at a press conference the next day Trudeau rejected the scheme as one “that favors the well-to-do.” That afternoon, the C.D. Howe Research Institute, a respected Montreal-based centre for economic analysis, issued its own report dumping all over Clark’s proposal as inflationary, inequitable and inefficient.

Clark not only held on to his cards after the C.D. Howe report came out but also upped the ante by promising to introduce the scheme in his first budget. The reason for his steadfastness is that he knows mortgage deductibility, whether or not it is economically sound and socially equitable, is a winning hand politically. While Clark would never say so publicly, he has admitted in private that the proposal is a sop to the middle class. He defends his position by arguing that the middle class has been turned off politics in Canada

and mortgage deductibility is the price

that must be paid to regain its support for the political system.

Even the Liberals acknowledge that mortgage deductibility is popular. Their own polls show it is the one positive reason people give for supporting Clark. (The rest are negative: they don’t like Trudeau.) Accordingly, some Liberal MPs have been pushing hard for their party to adopt a similar program. But the senior cabinet ministers—including Finance Minister Jean Chrétien—and Trudeau himself remain adamantly op-

posed to the idea. Thus, the Liberals are

attempting to make a virtue of necessity and are running on a platform of fiscal responsibility and against Tory extravagance—an ironic reversal of past campaign roles. The Liberals will make relatively small campaign pledges—such as last week’s announcement of $70 million for the electronics and satellite industries, $115 million for a “product development fund,” and a $50-million tax incentive scheme to encourage employees to invest in their own companies—and harp on the huge

($3 billion or more) bill for Conservative promises.

Apart from the dispute over mortgage deductibility, the week was lowkey as the leaders reached midway point in the campaign. Trudeau maintained the new soft-spoken approach he adopted after criticism of his “gunslinger” speeches, but the message was familiar: Canada needs a strong central government and only he can provide it. Said Trudeau of Clark in Goose Bay, Labrador: “We can’t have, after the next election, a guy who is wishywashy, a guy who is not sure, a guy who comes and goes on as fundamental a question as the unity of Canada.”

Clark stuck to his small-town itin-

erary (by the end of last week he had visited Toronto proper just twice, Montreal once and Vancouver not at all) and continued strewing promises in his wake: 4,000 more troops and better equipment for the armed forces, a 50per-cent increase in the country’s grainhandling capacity, elimination of LotoCanada, tougher restrictions on cheese imports and a national conference on the economy. In a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black, Clark also accused Trudeau, in Nanaimo, B.C., of going easy on the Parti Québécois government in Quebec. When Clark himself was in Quebec later in the week he showed more deference than defiance toward the PQ and even praised its

small-business policies.

Broadbent, meanwhile, continued setting out his policies for repatriating the Canadian economy, during a swing through the West, and added a new proposal: a tax-credit scheme that would provide up to $358 a year to a family of four at a cost of $1.8 billion to the federal treasury. For once, the other leaders paid some attention to Broadbent. Trudeau warned of the dangers of minority government and Clark charged in Weyburn, Saskatchewan: “A vote for the federal NDP is a vote for Pierre Elliott Trudeau.” Retaliated Broadbent the next night: “That’s absurd, but more absurd is that a vote for Joe Clark is a vote for Joe Clark.”