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The Globe and Mail

Conservatives, NDP guilty of populist pandering, Rae says

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae is asking Parliament to debate a national strategy to combat suicide.


While the Conservatives and NDP foment divisions between an out-of-touch elite and angry workers, the Canadian economy cries out for a balanced, environmentally astute program aimed at protecting the earning power of the middle class, Bob Rae will tell the Economic Club of Toronto at noon Wednesday.

An advance copy of the Interim Liberal Leader's first major economic address was provided to The Globe and Mail.

The Liberals are seeking to increase their third-place party's profile, as they prepare the policy framework for a January convention that hopes to reshape the structure and philosophy of a party that critics say is short on money, leadership, popularity and ideas.

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Mr. Rae sees things differently. The Conservatives' populist pandering "will fritter away the Canadian advantage unless we convince them to change course," he warns.

"An ideological government is pushing a program of jails and jets that threatens our fiscal stability going forward," he adds, while "the NDP wants to raise taxes, and then throws in a 'tax the rich' message for good measure."

In his speech, Mr. Rae commits the Liberal Party to freezing increases in EI premiums, as part of an effort to shift the tax burden away from payroll and other taxes that hamper job creation.

In his budget update on Tuesday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced the Conservative government will halve the planned increase in Employment Insurance premiums from 10 cents per $100 dollars of insurable earnings to five cents.

Mr. Rae would also dispense with "boutique tax credits" for things like sports equipment for children or for serving as a volunteer fire fighter, while also closing what he says are corporate tax loopholes.

"Creating a simpler, clearer tax code should be our objective, rooted in the twin principles of progressivity and support for innovation," he maintains.

But while placing a greater emphasis on protecting the environment, many of Mr. Rae's priorities mirror the Conservatives' own: encouraging growth through innovation, intelligent taxation and increased free trade.

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At the root of Mr. Rae's speech is a claim – which will be hotly contested by the other parties – that the Conservatives and the NDP are guilty of populist pandering to their core constituencies.

"The trouble with the populist narrative, whether of the left or the right, is its essential dishonesty," Mr. Rae maintains, "as if a simple bumper sticker 'tax the rich' or 'tough on crime' is really going to provide answers to the real issues we face as a country."

This eminently traditional Liberal message has been sown in stony ground in recent elections. While most Canadians are firmly anchored to the broad centre of Canadian politics, successive Liberal leaders have failed to convince voters that their own centrist message is anything more than nothing in particular.

Mr. Rae's task as interim leader is to recast that message in more positive terms, until the next leader puts policy meat on these values-based bones.

His speech to the Economic Club of Canada, coming a day after the Conservatives' latest economic update, may be Mr. Rae's first, best hope of making a mark.

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