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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s child-care platform is no longer anything like its prenumerical self.

BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Long ago, humans discovered it was impossible to make sense of the world without numbers.

More than 20,000 years ago, our ancestors figured out how to count, and to keep records of what they had counted. The earliest evidence is a tally stick from the Congo, known as the Ishango bone. Roughly 5,000 years ago, the Mesopotamians developed geometry and mathematics, writing down their results on clay tablets.

And on Sept. 8, 2021, the Conservative Party of Canada, whose election platform had hitherto been measured primarily in adjectives and adverbs, discovered numbers.

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For the past three weeks, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has been running what this page described as the most progressive conservative campaign since the demise of the Progressive Conservatives. His style, tone and (uncosted) platform were all about reassuring swing voters. A series of proposals, from health care to child care, were put forward to demonstrate that, while a Conservative government would be different from the past six years under the Liberals, it would not be too different.

But now that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has put numbers to the party’s platform promises, laying out the addition, subtraction, division and multiplication of costs, some real differences have been revealed – expressed in dollars and cents.

The sharpest contrast is between child-care plans. Until the PBO analysis, it was possible to believe that the Liberal and Conservative approaches were different, but not too different. The Liberals plan to give $29.8-billion to the provinces over five years to create more publicly supported, $10-a-day child-care options (they’ve signed deals with seven provinces to date); the Conservatives appeared to be promising to put the money toward giving working parents a direct infusion of cash, through a bulked-up child-care tax credit.

The relative merits of those two approaches would have made for an interesting debate. But not any more: Mr. O’Toole’s child-care platform is no longer anything like its prenumerical self.

It turns out that the Conservatives would replace the nearly $30-billion in child-care transfers to the provinces with just $2.6-billion in child tax credits to individuals. The Conservatives will honour the first year of deals signed by the Liberal government, delivering provinces a one-time transfer of $3.1-billion. But thereafter, the Tories would replace child-care transfers with a child-care tax credit, worth approximately 91 per cent less.

The Conservatives would, however, spend $24.1-billion supporting the least well-paid Canadian workers. The Canada workers benefit is a tax credit for low-income, working Canadians; the Tories would double it, to $2,800 a year for individuals and up to $5,000 for families.

It’s an excellent idea that will reduce poverty without reducing the incentive to work. But no matter how good it may be, it isn’t a national child-care plan.

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The Conservative platform also promises spending to encourage business investment and hiring. A proposed post-pandemic Canada Jobs Surge Plan would offer a wage subsidy to companies that take on new workers. Cost: $7.6-billion over two years. A program of tax credits to encourage capital investments would cost $13.8-billion over three years.

But the PBO’s costing of the Conservatives’ signature promise of an extra $60-billion over 10 years in unconditional health transfers to the provinces reveals that only $3.6-billion would flow over the next five years.

Without numbers, the Conservative platform appeared to be one thing. With numbers, it’s a very different thing.

The Conservatives could argue that their platform aims at fiscal responsibility and lower deficits. They could argue that, in their view, the country can’t afford a national child-care program, or a big increase in provincial health transfers – the latter a promise the Liberals aren’t even making – by reason of Ottawa’s postpandemic fiscal situation.

But such arguable propositions aren’t what Mr. O’Toole spent the first two-thirds of the campaign arguing. It isn’t what the largely prenumerate version of his platform said. Quite the contrary.

All of which leads to a question whose answer is beyond the ken of numbers, and entirely within the realm of philosophy: Why? Why did the Conservatives do this – to voters, and to themselves?

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