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john ibbitson

The Conservatives revealed a major plank in their election platform on Tuesday, seeking to box in opposition leaders Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau and Kathleen Wynne.

Oh, sorry. Ms. Wynne is, of course, Premier of Ontario. But she is becoming a character in the federal election drama as the Conservatives seek to make the campaign about universality versus targeting, voluntary contributions versus mandatory.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver announced in the House on Tuesday that the Conservative government would launch a new program allowing Canadians to increase their Canada Pension Plan payments voluntarily to receive enhanced benefits when they retire.

Since this was not mentioned in the budget, the announcement is, in effect, a campaign commitment. It contrasts with the NDP and the Liberal support for mandatory increases in contributions to finance enhanced benefits.

And it positively rebukes Ms. Wynne's Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, which would hike contributions by employers and workers to improve retirement benefits for those who have no company pension to fall back on.

"What we will not do is reach into the pockets of middle-class Canadians with a mandatory payroll tax, which the Liberals and NDP would do," Mr. Oliver told the House. He might just as well have added: "And as the Liberals want to do in Ontario."

Don't expect anything to happen soon. The CPP is jointly managed by Ottawa and the provinces, with Quebec independently managing the Quebec Pension Plan.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper loathes first ministers' conferences, so expect one-on-one consultations on the issue between Ottawa and the provincial governments throughout the summer.

The consultations with Ontario will be interesting. Would the Liberals go ahead with the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, with mandatory contributions for workers and employers, if those workers could enhance their CPP benefits by voluntarily increasing their contributions?

If Ontario and Ottawa cannot reach an accord between now and Labour Day – which is not much time for renegotiating the national pension plan – count on the Conservatives to campaign against the recalcitrant Ontario government.

In essence, the Conservatives are asking millions of suburban, middle-class Ontario voters which kind of government they prefer: the one at Queen's Park, which hikes taxes and runs deficits, mirror-imaged in the federal Liberals and NDP, or the Conservative government in Ottawa, where taxes are low, budgets balanced, and pension contributions, whether through tax-free savings accounts or an enhanced CPP, are voluntary?

Of course, the answer might be: we like our government in Queen's Park fine. That's why we re-elected the Liberals last year. But the Conservatives are betting that the bloom is fading from the provincial Liberal rose.

Already, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is being hurt by voters who are unhappy with the provincial government's new sex-education program, and who appear willing to punish Liberals of all persuasions.

Now, pensions are going to become an election issue, another trope in the debate over universality versus targeted, voluntary contributions versus mandatory.

Mr. Trudeau wants to hike income taxes for the rich while cutting them for the middle class. Similarly, he wants to improve child benefit payments for middle-class parents while clawing them back for high-income parents.

And he would cancel increased contribution limits to tax-free savings accounts, another voluntary Conservative savings plan.

Now he will be asked: do you support universal access to enhanced pension plan benefits (the Conservative plan) or a mandatory plan that benefits only certain workers (the Ontario plan)?

Universal versus targeted, voluntary versus mandatory. This is the new election debate. Especially if you live in Ontario.

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