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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks as 2.5-year-old Fiona Wellburn plays with her toys during a campaign stop in Saanich, B.C., on March 28, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks as 2.5-year-old Fiona Wellburn plays with her toys during a campaign stop in Saanich, B.C., on March 28, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Ibbitson

It's jobs versus quality of life in quest for middle-income votes Add to ...

Both the Conservatives and the Liberals want to get inside your head. But each has a very different idea of what's in there.

Both Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff believe middle-class voters with families are the deciders in the May 2 election. The poor, who need government the most, are less likely to vote. The rich vote, but there aren't many of them. So winning elections involves winning over the middle class. But how do they do it?

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The Conservative Leader is convinced that, if you belong to this all-important demographic, your biggest concern is for your job. On Tuesday, Mr. Harper re-announced measures unveiled in last week's budget, which died with the dissolution of Parliament.

If the Conservatives are re-elected on May 2, small businesses that hire new workers will be eligible for a one-time deduction of $1,000 in the increased Employment Insurance premiums that would result from the extra hires. This modest benefit would save an estimated 525,000 employers a total of $165-million.

"It means a stronger recovery for Canada and greater financial security for hard-working families," Mr. Harper told a gathering in Regina.

With the economic recovery still uncertain, and the unemployment rate stuck at 7.8 per cent, the Conservatives calculate that workers are most concerned about keeping their jobs and that their sons and daughters will be able to enter the workforce.

Balancing the books, keeping corporate taxes low, and offering targeted incentives for job creation will all, they believe, win the support of insecure middle-income families who count on a growing economy to keep them employed.

The Liberals, however, believe those same families are less insecure about their jobs than they are about their quality of life. So they rolled out a far more ambitious plan on Tuesday to help parents put their kids through university or college: grants of $1,000 a year for up to four years for any student attending college or university - $1,500 for students from low-income families.

"This is a real revolution in learning and training in Canada … that will give us the means of becoming the most competitive society in the world," Mr. Ignatieff said at a campaign event at Toronto's Sheridan College.

At $1-billion annually, the program would be expensive. However, a Liberal government would reverse the last two tranches of the Conservatives' phased reductions in corporate income taxes. This would generate an estimated $6-billion in additional revenues, which the Liberals hope to dedicate to new education, child-care and home-care programs.

NDP Leader Jack Layton also offered a major new plank to his platform on Tuesday, one he has championed in the past: banks would be forced to limit interest-rate charges on credit cards to no more than 5 per cent above the prime interest rate. These days, that would make the top interest rate about 8 per cent, a fraction of what some cards charge. What wasn't clear was whether the NDP would make this policy an essential condition for its support of a budget from a governing party.

The contrasting priorities between the two leading parties is emphatic. For the Conservatives: reduce corporate taxes, provide incentives for small business, balance the budget, and eschew new spending programs.

For the Liberals: return corporate tax rates to where they were a couple of years ago and use the money saved to help students pay tuition, parents to obtain child care, and caregivers to look after infirm family members.

So what's in your head?

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