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Harper pledges to shrink government - quickly Add to ...

Stephen Harper is offering Canadians an election pitch that's loaded with targeted tax cuts and small goodies at the same time as he's promising to rein in the size of government.

And he's not just pledging to shrink Ottawa, he's vowing to do it even faster than the Tories had previously promised.

In their platform, released Friday, the Conservatives pledge to bring Ottawa's books back into the black a full year earlier than they'd promised less than three weeks ago in their March 22 budget. They are now vowing to balance the books by 2014-15, and to do so, they're depending on aggressive cuts - reductions in government operating costs that only weeks ago the Tories were saying shouldn't be counted upon yet.

Mr. Harper unveiled a basket of new campaign pledges worth $6.6-billion over five years during an Oprah talk-show-style event in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga on Friday, promising to finance these as well as a faster budget-balancing plan by chopping $4-billion in annual savings from federal government operations.

"It's going to feel, I hope, like a smaller government," predicted Jim Flaherty, Conservative candidate and finance minister.

The targeted measures on offer includes everything from installing defibrillators in every hockey arena, to a $2.5-billion annual tax break for parents, to $2-billion in compensation for Quebec for sales-tax changes, and more than $200-million in yearly new spending.

The Tories are trying to frame the ballot question as a choice between Mr. Harper's prudent approach - tax cuts and spending restraint - and the risk of switching horses in a fragile global economy.

Their platform underpins that message, and aims to woo a string of suburban and rural constituents, from hockey dads to seniors to parents and immigrant groups. It would also set up a $5-million "Office of Religious Freedom" to monitor the global persecution of religious groups such as Coptic Christians.

The Tories are even promising to make Rouge Valley a national park for voters in the Greater Toronto Area, a region where the Tories must gain more seats if they want to win the majority they've sought in four elections dating back to 2004.

The full offering from the Conservatives is actually much bigger than Friday's new promises because they are also pledging everything in the March 22 budget, a fiscal plan that offers another $7.6-billion over the five years. The document, which includes measures such as $300-million in extra income support for low-income seniors, was shelved when the Harper Conservatives were defeated March 25.

Despite all these offerings, the Conservatives are pledging to run a surplus of at least $3.7-billion in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

A key target group for the Tories this election are Canadians who are comfortable with the direction of the economy and like Mr. Harper's managerial skills but have so far been leery of handing him the keys to a majority government.

In a bold move, the Tories are also promising a swift crackdown on crime, pledging that if they win a majority they would bundle all the law-and-order legislation they've been trying to pass into one omnibus bill - and pass it within 100 days of taking office.

This pledge attempts to wedge the vote in Mr. Harper's favour, more clearly differentiating the Conservatives from Liberal and New Democrat opponents and forcing voters to decide between what the Tories hope are now stark alternatives.

The Liberals have been muddling their message on crime this week. The party's public safety critic, Mark Holland, announced that a Liberal government would not undo any Tory legislation passed to date. It was an attempt to dispel Conservative charges that Mr. Holland's party was soft on crime. But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff later contradicted Mr. Holland and is now making no promises to preserve Conservative laws already passed.

Mindful of the political sensitivity around health care, the Conservatives also pledged on Friday to spare from cuts a 6-per-cent annual increase to health-care transfers Ottawa gives the provinces.

This matches a Liberal pledge made by Mr. Ignatieff and helps buffer the Tories from accusations they are going to chop health-care funding.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

 

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