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Election Ringside, March 29: Hold the sleaze

Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: John Duffy Sent: Tuesday, March 29, 2011, 10:23 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan Subject: Election Ringside

From famine to feast on the policy front over the past 24 hours. Yesterday, Prime Minister Harper rolled out his pledge to allow income splitting for families with children five years from now. And today, Michael Ignatieff presented his Learning Passport, basically a tuition grant to families with kids in college and university. Both programs are big-ticket, generous and should be noticed. They also illustrate nicely the approaches of the two campaigns.

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Mr. Harper's pitch has a class tinge to it; is aimed at upper income earners ($6,000 in savings for a top-bracket earner's family versus nothing for a working family where the top earner makes $40,000). A social-conservative bias is built-in; the main beneficiaries are married people with children and a stay-at-home parent. Last but far from least, the Family Tax Cut is crafted as a carrot to pull voters towards supporting a Harper majority. Given that the federal deficit cannot be eliminated before 2015/16, the only way to get this yummy benefit is to vote Harper a durable majority that will be around at that point. Aimed at electoral target groups? Check. Quiet appeal to social conservative base? Check. Trojan Horse for a majority pitch? Check.

Mr. Ignatieff's is similarly emblematic. The benefit is directed, as one expects from Liberals. Instead of a broad spend-it-as-you-like-it tax break, the Passport is for postsecondary education purposes only. It also seeks to learn from the rough ride the Liberals took in the 2006 child-care debate. Delivered through the tax system, the Passport cannot be accused of creating a new bureaucracy. And it connects to two larger policy themes beloved of Liberals: government encouragement of social mobility and formation of human capital for a competitive economy. Lastly, as every Liberal strategist learns in boot camp, health and education are good subjects for Grits to be heard talking about. So, directed towards Liberal policy values? Check. Sails trimmed to avoid repeat errors? Check. On-message with areas of Liberal strength? Check.

Now if only there weren't so many other juicy things going on out there - ongoing Harper 2004 coalition rumbles, staffers under RCMP investigation working on campaigns, the pile-up of abuse-of-power issues - we might just get a good crisp policy debate for a few days. Will the policy frame hold for a while, Tom?

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Tuesday, March 29, 2011, 3:26 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

John, you intellectuals always say campaigns should be about policy. Actually, Kim Campbell was probably right ("Campaigns are no time to talk about policy"), but let's go with it for today and get back to some sleaze later in the week.

I largely agree with your initial analysis of both policy announcements. I like the Conservative one on income splitting, just wish it could be done more quickly. In one way, I also like the Liberal announcement on demogrants for students. It's good, as you say, that it wouldn't create another bureaucracy. However, I question the need for it. University and college students in general are not a deprived group. They come disproportionately from families with above-average incomes. They may have a cash-flow problem now, but the right way to deal with that is with a student loan program, which we already have. By giving every student $1,000 a year, you're subsiding people who in the future will be of above-average income to do what they're already doing, i.e., take advantage of higher education. It's actually a regressive policy, in spite of the extra $500 a year for low-income students, however they will be defined.

From: John Duffy Sent: Tuesday, March 29, 2011, 5:14 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

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To be called an intellectual by someone who just got nominated for the Donner Prize is high praise indeed. Congratulations, Tom, and good luck! Now if I could just be certain that a good Tory like you meant it as a compliment, my day would be complete.

Your analysis of the distributive effects of Mr. Ignatieff's Learning Passport is trenchant, but I think it misses the point. What matters here is the attempt by the Liberals to have the government do something positive for individuals and for the country. That's a very different thing from what Mr. Harper offers, which is a tax cut for its own sake.

Liberals fundamentally disagree with how Mr. Harper governs, namely by shrinking the federal government, its role in the federation, in the economy, in our society. Those who say he is betraying his conservative principles aren't noticing the policy areas - taxes included - where Mr. Harper simply downs traditional federal government tools, often without fanfare. We have no energy policy. We have no climate-change strategy. Can anyone say we have a broadcasting policy? Or a telecommunications policy? A social policy to deal with the erosion of the middle class? An industrial policy to address our productivity slippage? A health-care policy, now that the 2004 accord is about to expire? A national unity approach? An aboriginal strategy? And for all that vacating of important policy fields, the government still spends more than it ever did.

Mr. Harper's is a kind of laisser-tomber conservatism, quietly letting go of the federal role in key public policy fields. I don't think this approach serves anyone terribly well, and I think it is uniquely ill-suited to a country like Canada. No one is nostalgic for the Big Ottawa of the Trudeau era; that's what's so smart about Mr. Ignatieff's stripped-down Learning Passport. But I'd welcome an outraged Conservative charge of creeping centralization. At least we'd be getting some real debate, instead of this relentless, silent withdrawal of our national government from Canadian life.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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