The Alliance adjusts its flat-tax plank as the Liberals, riding high, prepare for an election
John Geddes in Ottawa
Canadian Alliance strategists know that with a fall election in the wind they are running far behind the Liberals. But they are taking heart, and borrowing tactics, from past come-frombehind political victories. Consider George Bush—senior, not Dubya. Back in 1988, the Republican was trailing his Democrat rival Michael Dukakis until late summer in the race for the U.S. presidency. One stroke of slick campaigning often credited with helping Bush to soften his image—and go on to win—was a television advertisement that showed him playing with his grandchildren. That ad, much admired by political pros, was a model Alliance tacticians had in mind when
they came up with three 30-second TV spots featuring Day that began airing last week. In one, Day bemoans the level of the federal debt, all the while holding his granddaughter, three-yearold Janessa—who doesn’t look much interested.
Even the Alliance’s policy platform, a 24-page document unveiled by Day last week in Waterloo, Ont., features more colour pictures of the leader (nine, including one of him with Janessa) than it does charts and graphs (seven). “Frankly, there are about five people in the country interested in econometric analysis,” explained MP Jason Kenney, co-chairman of the party’s campaign team. “In modern politics, the leader is the personification of the party.” And Day showed again at the platform
launch why his backers are investing so much hope in his persona. When a protester at the event drenched him with chocolate milk, Day was at his unflappable best—joking that he should have had on the wetsuit that attracted so much attention when he wore it to a recent B.C. lakeside news conference.
But Day’s smooth handling of the chocolate milk incident was the sole highlight of the evening. After changing into a clean shirt, he was left to present a document that seemed to put him on the defensive. The big surprise was a proposal to delay implementing the Alliance’s controversial 17-per-cent, single-rate tax—a policy that had been touted as the centrepiece of the party’s pitch for votes. The revised promise for the first term of an Alliance government is to introduce the 17-per-cent rate only for those earning up to $ 100,000; a 25| per-cent rate would apply to income § above that. The 17-per-cent rate would be extended to those richest Canadians in a second Alliance mandate.
Day insisted he was not backing off from the proposition that all Canadians should be taxed at the same rate. Fie said Alliance number crunchers simply found they could not afford to extend the 17-per-cent rate to the top-earning three per cent of Canadians and at the same time pay for such priority measures as cutting the federal tax on gasoline by at least three cents a litre. But the party is not watering down the principle that everybody should eventually pay the same tax rate. Liberals see that as leaving the Alliance vulnerable. “It is regressive, it is unfair,” Finance Minister Paul Martin told reporters. “If you’re rich, you’ll get a much larger tax reduction than if you are poor.”
Kenney does not deny that. Since higher-income Canadians pay higher tax rates now, they would get the biggest benefit from a switch to a single-rate system. The Alliance calculates that a typical two-income family of four earning $90,000 would pay $2,776 less federal tax under their 17-per-cent policy, while a similar family making $50,000 would save $1,588. “We don’t apologize for saying that someone who works hard
Alliance strategists are banking on Day’s persona
and succeeds should be rewarded, not punished,” Kenney said. “Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien already have their piece of the cake—they’re independently wealthy millionaires—and it’s disingenuous and cynical in the extreme for them to now play a variation on old NDP-style class-warfare politics.” Exacdy what form the batde between the Liberals and the Alliance will take should be clearer as early as next week, when Martin is expected to table a mini-budget with new tax and spending measures. His officials say they are working on a plan that emphasizes middle-class tax cuts, stressing that the rich will get relief, too, but are expected to go on carrying a heavier burden. The finance department is scrambling to
prepare the fiscal plan in place of Martin’s usual fall economic statement, when he typically updates the government’s projections for the economy. A mini-budget would go further, setting the stage for an election. Most political
insiders in both the government and opposition parties are now betting that Prime Minister Chrétien will make the call on Oct. 22 for a Nov. 27 vote. The death of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau seems to have stoked, rather than dampened, election fever.
In fact, Chrétien came close last week to direcdy linking Trudeau’s death and his own bid for a third mandate. In a campaign-style speech in Vancouver on Oct. 5, he alluded to the emotional eulogy delivered by Justin Trudeau at his father’s funeral just two days earlier. Justin Trudeau reminded mourners of the way his father came out of political retirement to oppose the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords, then added: “But he won’t be coming back anymore. It’s all up to us, all of us, now.” It was the most overdy political passage in the eulogy, and Chrétien picked up on the theme of an inherited duty. “As Justin asked us, it is our responsibility to carry on,” he said in Vancouver. “I will carry on.”
Senior Liberals, sensitive to any suggestion that Chrétien might crassly exploit Trudeau’s death, were quick to point out that there is nothing new about Chrétien invoking his Liberal predecessors in speeches. Still, with the national outpouring following Trudeau’s death, talk among senior Liberals has shifted noticeably from touting the record of the Chrétien government since 1993 to emphasizing an older Liberal “legacy.” One possible reason: polls already show the governing party’s popularity jumping after Trudeau’s death on Sept. 28. A Léger marketing poll conducted between Oct. 1 and Oct. 3 for Le Journal de Montréal showed Liberal support bouncing to 48 per cent, up from 44 per cent in late September. Alliance support fell to 19 per cent from 22 per cent. Liberals hope the numbers reflect not just nostalgia and grief, but a deeper renewal of interest in their party’s heritage. The Alliance, meanwhile, might take comfort from the reminder of how an athletic, charismatic figure on the political scene can sometimes capture and hold the imagination of voters. ES]
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