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Politics Conservatives bet on voter appeal with balanced budgets and fiscal restraint

Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign stop in Saskatoon, Sask, on Oct. 6, 2015.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper delivered what he's framing as a fiscally cautious campaign platform Friday that's relatively modest on spending – with nearly two-thirds of it devoted to tax breaks – as the Conservatives bet that a majority of voters still prefer balanced budgets and less intervention than rivals have on offer.

The Tories are promising $7.5-billion of new spending over the next four years, an amount they tout as much less than Liberal or NDP pledges. By 2019-20, new spending promises from the Conservatives would add up to $2.9-billion annually, compared with double-digit promises that same year from both of their major rivals.

The Conservatives, of course, can afford to play up the relatively inexpensive platform because Mr. Harper is also running on tax-cutting measures enacted with the 2015 budget that amount to another $4.6-billion per year, such as income splitting for families with children younger than 18 and an expansion of the Universal Child Care Benefit.

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The Tory Leader pledged to keep Ottawa's finances in the black over the next four years, beginning with a $1.7-billion surplus in 2016-17 and $1.4-billion the following year. The combined surpluses over the four-year period would exceed $6.4-billion.

Many of the promises have already been announced over the past two months of the election campaign, and as a package this platform reinforces Mr. Harper's tax-cutting, leaner-government approach to the economy.

One new promise, however, is a pledge to hike penalties for so-called foreign fighters – people who head abroad to join terror groups – by expanding the definition of "high treason" to include battling alongside jihadis against the Canadian Armed Forces. This gives the government the option to pursue high-treason charges against Canadians who've left this country to join terror groups. High treason carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

The 159-page Tory platform includes a promise to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a wide-ranging accord between 12 Pacific Rim countries that was reached just this week.

But in a twist, the self-styled free-trading Conservatives are also promising they would work harder to shut the door on imports that are upsetting Canadian business interests.

The Tory platform includes a pledge to take more seriously beefs about unfair trade practices by foreign countries, such as dumping. They said they would empower the Canada Border Services Agency to "carry out a full investigation of trade complaints" even in cases where a preliminary review of the matter by the federal trade regulator, the Canadian International Trade Tribunal, comes back negative.

Other promises, most of which have already been announced by Mr. Harper, include a moratorium on further Senate appointments until the provinces consent to reforms to the discredited Red Chamber. Fraud charges against Harper appointee Mike Duffy, and a slew of spending controversies involving other senators, have lowered the repute of the unelected body even further in recent years.

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While Liberal rival Justin Trudeau is promising to run deficits to finance more infrastructure spending, Mr. Harper is doubling down on penny-pinching in Ottawa.

The Tories are pledging to continue a freeze on government department operating budgets for one more year – a move they say would save $565-million.

They're also promising $57-million over three years to Quebec to upgrade maritime and port infrastructure in Montreal and Quebec City.

Another promise would allow people to own property on a B.C. aboriginal band's reserve.

"Some First Nations have expressed an interest in exploring the possibility of legislation that would allow private property ownership within current reserve boundaries while preserving existing governance and tax policy structures," the Conservative platform says.

"The Whispering Pines/Clinton Indian Band, near Kamloops and Clinton in B.C., has asked that the government move ahead with legislation that would allow it to establish a property ownership regime."

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The Tories say they would pass further legislation to enable private-property ownership on additional aboriginal reserves if other bands request it.

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