What is it that Canada's politicians are offering to voters? It's pretty easy to say what Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau are pitching. Thomas Mulcair's NDP is offering many things, but they are to be built piece by piece over years, and that might just make them harder to sell now.
On Friday, Mr. Mulcair was in Regina to announce he'd spend billions of dollars to work toward universal pharmacare – not a universal prescription-drug plan now, but a plan to "work in consultation with the provinces towards a plan." By 2020, an NDP government would spend $1.5-billion on it.
There are many Canadians, certainly, who think it's high time for national pharmacare. But Mr. Mulcair isn't telling Canadians that, if elected, he'll start delivering. He's promising to work towards a goal and that, in four years, there will be progress.
There are reasons. It's not just that the New Democrats are promising balanced budgets. It's that they're promising other things, too. So pharmacare, better seniors care, infrastructure-spending increases and more will all be phased in over years, when money will, they believe, become available.
The NDP promised subsidized child care, and that would be a big deal for many voters, but it wouldn't be fully phased in for eight years.
Now they can tell Canadians they'd march forward on many fronts, patiently, over time. But on the downside, they don't really have a clear, direct offer – the thing voters get, soon, if they vote NDP.
Voters know what Mr. Harper is telling them they'll get: low taxes and cheques for parents. There's an important broader debate about public finances and the management of the economy and many other issues. But the simple offer to voters, what they get if they tick off the Tory box on Oct. 19, is low taxes and parental benefits.
Mr. Trudeau has a pretty clear offer, too: big, immediate spending on infrastructure and transit, and a middle-class tax cut, too. His pitch is that voters will quickly see building gets people working and boosts business. And he promises most will get more from his tax cuts and benefits.
The NDP's big selling point is child care – and Mr. Mulcair does sell it. It makes the ears of many young parents prick up. But for most of them, it won't be fully in effect until they've grown out of daycare.
Mr. Mulcair pushed his child-care promise frequently in Thursday's leaders debate, calling it "a top priority for the NDP." Mr. Trudeau fired back: "Eight years from now, if the provinces kick in billions."
The NDP has other sellers. But all with the same time delays. Voters are skeptical of politicians' promises, and even more so when they're promised for a long time from now.
Mr. Mulcair could have chosen to do one thing, quicker. He could have promised subsidized child care in two or three years – that would fit in his budget plan, as long as he cut back other things. But he promised many things.
It's not just a question of marketing. The NDP's platform is built on promises being phased in so that it costs less in the near-term, costed out over the four years of a majority-government mandate. But he's promising to launch many initiatives that seem moderately priced now, but will cost a lot of money later, five or 10 years down the road. Perhaps they won't all fit in the budget when that time comes.
Many of those initiatives are things that will interest voters, and offer potential benefits before they are fully phased in. Mr. Mulcair promises his proposal to kick in $1.5-billion into a national prescription drugs plan will allow for a single buyer to negotiate cheaper drug costs, saving Canadians money. But he can't tell voters exactly what they get years from now.
He might have picked one thing he could promise to deliver soon, but instead he has tried to offer many. The danger is that none of them stand out as the big thing voters would get from the NDP after Oct. 19.