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NDP Leader Jack Layton fields questions during a campaign stop in Regina on March 28, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton fields questions during a campaign stop in Regina on March 28, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Layton vows to cap credit-card rates Add to ...

Jack Layton is making a pitch to middle-income earners in the large suburban sprawl around Toronto, a region that is rich in votes but that has largely eluded the New Democrats in previous elections.

The NDP Leader paid a visit Tuesday to the wartime-era home of Pamela and Reid Newell of Brantford, Ont., an industrial city west of Hamilton that has seen better days.

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He talked about the profits of the corporate banks and the burden that household debt places on Canadian families.

Tired of being perceived as the party of students, union activists and farmers, the New Democrats would like to supplant the Liberals as the party of choice among centre-left voters in the middle class.

"In this recession, the average family debt has ballooned to over $100,000," Mr. Layton said, standing in street of the neat working-class neighbourhood. "Family debt right now is currently increasing at twice the level of incomes of families ... With the rising price of everyday essentials, everything from groceries price of everyday essentials like groceries, to home heating, to filling up the tank, it just keeps getting worse and people are having to turn have to their credit cards in order to cover those family essentials."

With 35 per cent of Canadians unable to pay off their credit cards every month, and the average unpaid balances standing at $3,700, the NDP wants to cap credit-card rates at five percentage points above prime.

If Mr. Layton was elected to form government, he says he would also give financial regulators new powers to identify and ban excessive fees on credit cards and make mandatory a code of conduct for credit-card companies that is now voluntary.

The message is an attempt to reach out to families who have overextended themselves, perhaps as a result of the recent recession.

Reporters asked whether banks would not just impose other types of fees to make up for the money they are not making in credit-card interest. Mr. Layton didn't really have an answer for that. But, he said, some control over the rates that are being charged is absolutely essential.

"Are we such terrible credit risks that we have to have the highest credit rates in the world?' he asked.

The riding of Brant, which encompasses Brantford, is an interesting choice for an NDP campaign stop.

Most recently won by Conservative Phil McColeman, it was in the hands of the Liberals for 15 years - from 1993 to 2008 - and the party would like to have it back. Former incumbent Lloyd St. Amand, who lost to Mr. McColeman by almost 5,000 votes in 2008, is running again. The New Democrat was a distant third in the last election.

Into this mix, the New Democrats have thrown a new candidate, Marc Laferriere, a clinical social worker who is also the National Director for Canada Without Poverty, and invested significant resources to promote his campaign, including multiple visits by the leader.

It's a strategy that could pay off if the NDP is able to sap all of Mr. St. Amand's support. But it could also split the left-leaning vote and give Mr. McColeman and easy ride up the middle.

This is a riding in which many people have lost their jobs in the recession "and they are looking for a political party that will stand up for them," said Mr. Layton.

The NDP campaign bus will sometimes go to ridings where there is a tight three-way race, he said. "We are the party that is going to defeat the Conservative in this riding."

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