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In this multiple-exposed image, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, left, asks a question and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau answers during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 4, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The key to understanding any party platform is to read the part that is written in invisible ink: There is what it says, and then there is what it does not say, which is usually far more significant. The promises a party makes may or may not bear any relation to earthbound reality – they are mostly meaningful as guides to the interests it is trying to bribe – but the promises it declines to make you can take to the bank.

So it is with the current offerings from the federal Liberals and Conservatives. The similarities in what they say are apparent enough. Both, for example, promise to bring the continuing pandemic to an end – the Conservatives, through a combination of “vaccines and testing,” the Liberals, by making vaccines “mandatory.”

Both promise recovery and jobs afterward – “one million jobs,” the Tories claim, while the Liberals boldly propose to go “beyond one million” – through a combination of wage subsidies, government aid to small business, and support for pandemic-ravaged sectors like tourism, though in truth the vast majority of new jobs will come from broader growth in the economy, which neither party’s policies will much affect.

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Both would transfer billions to the provinces for health care, albeit in different ways: The Grits would hand the money over in smaller chunks labelled “doctors,” “waiting lists” and “mental health,” while the Conservatives would simply increase federal transfers by 6 per cent annually.

But since neither of them can actually control how the provinces spend the money, it amounts to free cash either way – just enough to allow the provinces to put off reforming their health care systems, without making them accountable for the results. If experience is any guide, higher compensation for providers, but no shorter wait times.

Both parties pretend, with varying degrees of plausibility, to take seriously Canada’s international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, depending on how you define those commitments.

The Liberal plan would combine sharply rising carbon prices, to $170 a tonne by 2030, with a raft of the same costly regulations and subsidies that carbon prices were supposed to replace. This might conceivably be enough to get us to our original Paris target of a 30-per-cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030 – we are roughly at 2005 levels now – but will leave us nowhere near the Liberals’ newer target of a 40-per-cent to 45-per-cent reduction.

The Conservative plan would not get us even to Paris, and at greater expense, since the Tory version of carbon pricing, the ludicrous “personal low carbon savings accounts,” is a) not a real price, but rather a kind of loyalty rewards program, and b) is capped at $50. That leaves even more of the heavy lifting to be done by regs and subs under the Tory plan than the Liberal one. The Tories seem quite proud of this.

Both parties make a show of concern for the high cost of housing, offering a combination of financial assistance for home-buyers and measures to increase the supply of housing – though since the federal government has relatively limited capacity to affect the latter neither is likely to do much to bring down prices. Possibly this is not entirely unintended, since for every millennial trying to buy a house, there are three boomers hoping to sell.

What else? Both would extend employment insurance (or something like it) to cover people it does not cover now – gig workers, in the Tory plan; the self-employed, in the Liberals’. Both want to tax “foreign digital giants,” i.e. Facebook and Google, since that’s where the money is. Both evince a sudden concern for the welfare of animals, though the Tories get extra points for specifically mentioning puppies.

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Those are some of the broad similarities. What of their differences? Child care, for one – the Liberal plan to offer grants to provinces to subsidize daycare centres would provide more aid to fewer parents later, while the Tory tax credit for child-care expenses would give less to more sooner.

The Conservatives would pander harder to Quebec nationalists, not only abandoning the province’s linguistic and religious minorities to their fates, as the Liberals would, but also allowing the province to collect federal income taxes on Ottawa’s behalf. On the other hand, the Tories seem less keen to regulate the internet or subsidize the media.

The Conservatives are about as obsessed with the cost of living as the Liberals are with providing “gender and diversity impact summaries” of their own platform – one for each chapter, as a delighted Liberal partisan noted online – which perhaps accounts for the parties’ differing fortunes to date.

The actual Conservative proposals for taming Canada’s world-beating prices for things like food, telecoms and air travel, however, might have been taken out of the NDP’s playbook. Rather than simply removing current, government-imposed restrictions on competition in these sectors, the platform is filled with non-solutions such as a passengers’ bill of rights and bellicose demands to jail executives for price-fixing. Oh, and a one-month GST tax holiday, set for December – whose chief effect will likely be to prompt consumers to put off purchases from November, only to find, come December, that merchants have offset much of the tax cut in higher prices.

They are outdone in the steal-votes-from-the-NDP sweepstakes, however, by the Liberals – in fairness, they’ve been at it longer – who not only promise 10 days’ sick leave to federally regulated workers, but higher taxes on everything from banks to yachts to rich folks foolish enough to take too much advantage of the dozens of generous tax credits both parties have thoughtfully strewn before them.

Do these surface differences matter, however, beside the deeper similarities – the issues neither party wants to talk about, but which left unaddressed, will turn all their other plans to dust? I don’t just mean the deficit, which neither party has any plan to reduce. Both would in fact increase it, though the Conservatives talk vaguely of balancing the budget “over the next decade,” a pace so leisurely the Conservative leader promises it can be done without cutting a dollar in spending.

I mean measures to improve economic growth: the denominator in all those scary projections of the debt-to-GDP ratio. However meagre the impact of the parties’ plans on growth in the short term, neither has the slightest clue how to raise the country’s longer-term growth rate – the real key to taming the debt, especially for the provinces, whose situation is increasingly dire.

Both view growth as largely a matter of “moonshot” technological breakthroughs, driven by government-funded research programs, rather than constant incremental improvements in efficiency, driven by competition, in firms across the economy. Both are certain they can identify the “industries of the future,” when the only certainty is that most of the new jobs and all of the growth in the decades to come will be in industries that do not yet exist, indeed haven’t been thought of.

So fine, let’s have yet another election about distributing the proceeds of economic growth, even as growth itself slows to a near halt. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.

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