At a time when they’re under fire for using Islamic State footage of brutal executions in an ad attacking Justin Trudeau, describing Stephen Harper’s Conservatives as “restrained” might seem like a stretch.
But a rare case of the governing party holding fire against its opponents has been among the most noteworthy stories during the runup to the federal election – one that helps explain the recent struggles of Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals to get traction.
For a brief time this spring, we appeared on the verge of something approaching class warfare. That was what the Liberals seemed to be counting on, even if they wouldn’t put it in quite those terms, when they unveiled key planks of their campaign platform. Those planks included a tax increase for top income earners, along with cancellations of the Tories’ income-splitting policy and the increase in maximum contributions to tax-free savings accounts (both alleged to disproportionately benefit the affluent), to fund tax cuts for middle-income earners and an overhaul and expansion of the Canada Child Benefit.
The way the Liberals hyped that announcement in the days before it – with predictions that, after being accused of having too little policy, they would now be accused of having too much of it – made clear that they expected their promises to generate enough push-back to make it the talk of the country.
The Liberals’ expectation was clearly that, true to past form, the Tories would launch a full-fledged assault on them for wanting to raise taxes. The Liberals would reply along the lines that Mr. Harper was just standing up for his rich friends in the 1 per cent, and Mr. Trudeau looking out for everyone else. This would put them on the side of people who feel the system has been rigged against them, and buffer Mr. Trudeau’s credentials as a change agent willing to take bold positions.
To the Liberals’ surprise, though, the Conservatives didn’t play along. Sure, they made some perfunctory noises about Mr. Trudeau wanting to “raise taxes on families,” but they weren’t very loud and didn’t last long. There was no ad campaign against the Liberals’ tax plans.
Instead, the Conservatives took technical issue with whether the Liberal promises added up, made a modest effort to suggest the middle class would benefit more under their own plan, and generally did their best to make the whole thing as boring and uneventful as possible. Rather than dabbling in populism, the Liberals got stuck pulling out charts to show why their policy was a bit better than the other guy’s.
Putting a positive spin on how it played out, Liberals now say their policies are so inherently appealing to the electorate that the Conservatives knew better than to attack them, and suggest that, because of the potential contrast, the Tories seem to have all but abandoned selling the tax measures in their own pre-election budget.
But in recent conversations, senior officials in their party also conceded that what is meant to be one of their signature issues has largely gone below Canadians’ radar so far. “Our collective challenge is to get people to pay attention to it,” one of them said.
“We expected them to take the bait,” the official said of the Conservatives. “Instead, it turns out we have to take the fight to them and the NDP a little more.”
The inclusion of the New Democrats, in that assessment, was telling. In the jockeying between the opposition parties to position themselves as the realest alternative to the Conservatives and pick up centre-left votes, the Liberals have been counting on highlighting Mr. Trudeau’s plans to increase taxes on the rich, and Thomas Mulcair’s lack thereof.
Setting aside that the NDP can counter that it plans to increase corporate taxes and the Liberals don’t, taxing the rich – and the various related tax reforms – has not yet gotten enough attention for most voters to know how the Liberals and New Democrats differ on it. Nor did those policies stem the momentum toward the NDP that materialized in the first half of this year.
The Liberals’ plan to “take the fight” to the other parties on tax policy may yet enable them to make good on the hype before their roll-out on that issue. Or, they may be able to strike contrasts on promises they have subsequently announced, such as democratic reform and environmental protection, or those yet to be unveiled.
But the Conservatives, who have made little secret of preferring to beat down the Liberals and take their chances with the New Democrats, have done themselves a favour so far. Even the most combative can pick their battles.Report Typo/Error