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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

Party platforms offer a clear policy choice for a change Add to ...

As I was reading the newly released Liberal platform, it occurred to me that one of the conventional criticisms of our political system - namely that it offers little choice - is not turning out to be true in this election.

The Conservative platform, even if not documented in a special booklet, is clearly articulated, and highly consistent with the themes expounded by Stephen Harper for years. While some Conservative voters may have experienced discomfort with a drift to deficits, or efforts to appease Quebec nationalists, in this election the Conservatives are dancing with the political ideas they have long favoured: lower taxes, stronger military, more law and order.

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Beyond the spending they deem vital on the military and for prisons, almost all roads lead otherwise to lower taxes. For businesses, for families, for piano lessons, for fitness. A tax cut for every occasion. Voters who crave tax cuts can't possibly be confused about who to vote for.

The Liberals in contrast, offer a platform that draws more from the "chicken in every pot" tradition. More support for home care, for pensions, for education. Taxes don't go down, priorities are different. Voters who believe that government programs, rather than more money in your pocket, are the best way to solve these problems, will see the Liberals are the more logical choice.

So, while both parties are battling for votes around the centre of the spectrum, they are hardly identical in how they are approaching that fight. What's interesting to me is that neither approach is misguided, in terms of what public opinion has been telling these parties for the last decade or so. On any given day, voters around the centre of the spectrum may feel drawn to a smaller government-lower taxes pitch, but the next day, they may feel inspired by a passionate case for government leadership on worrying social issues. Many voters harbour internally conflicting values: and the campaigns are trying to resolve this conflict, not only to win their natural, un-conflicted, base voters.

Finally, in the run up to the campaign, I noticed that the Conservatives were running an ad that could have come from Liberal campaigns under Trudeau, Chrétien or Martin: a strongly patriotic, aspirational pitch, almost a "morning in Canada" take on the famous Ronald Reagan ad. It was well tuned, as its collective optimism helps soften what some voters could otherwise fear might be a "let the chips fall where they may" attitude towards opportunity.

In turn, the Liberals are aggressively encroaching on Conservative turf by driving hard to appeal to "families." Their platform Sunday was subtitled Your Family, Your Future, Your Canada. Michael Ignatieff referred repeatedly to a "Family Pack" of ideas. This is no accident, but a recognition that the Liberal brand had been supplanted by the Conservative brand in the battle to be most family-friendly.

It's fashionable to assume that policy won't matter much to the outcome in this election campaign, and that has so often been the case in the past, it's hardly a risky assumption. But if that turns out to be the case, it won't be because the parties aren't trying this time. An already pretty clear choice was made even more clear today.

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