The sense that the Conservatives had a platform problem began when Andrew Scheer started evading questions about its drop date. That was a week ago. The Conservative Leader’s non-answers gave birth to a lot of questions.
Mr. Scheer also last week started practising prophylactic whataboutism, accusing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of having never released a platform, or having an uncosted platform. (For the record, the Liberals have a platform, and it’s largely costed).
It left people wondering: Was the Conservative plan still being focus-grouped? Was it like a Hollywood blockbuster that bombed so badly with test audiences that producers had banned it from theatres? Was it stuck in rewrite?
The date of the big reveal was eventually announced: late last Friday afternoon, before the Thanksgiving long weekend. The Conservatives were trying to make their election platform as invisible as Doug Ford.
So now that it’s out, what’s so terrifying about the platform that dare not speak its name?
Not much. It has its good points and its less good points. It differs from the Liberal plan in small ways that will please some voters, and displease others. And to meet the Conservative pledge to balance the budget in five years – economically unnecessary, yet demanded by the party base – it includes significant spending cuts.
Over the past two weeks, the Conservatives gave a lot of airtime to two small spending cuts: to “corporate welfare” and foreign aid, each worth $1.5-billion a year. But those don’t come close to paying for promises such as removing the GST from home heating (cost: $1.4-billion a year by 2024) or making parental benefits tax-free ($1-billion a year). Lowering the bottom tax bracket by 1.25 per cent would cost another $6.1-billion a year by 2024.
That left the Tories $15.6-billion short of a 2024 balanced budget. The platform contains measures to close the gap.
Not wanting to give the Liberals any more ammunition to characterize them as the party that guts public services, the Conservatives have concentrated cuts where most people would have trouble seeing them.
Mr. Scheer’s plan to find extra billions involves reducing “non-personnel operating expenses,” downsizing the infrastructure budget and – surprise – raising several billion dollars of new revenue, through a tax increase and a measure that is tax-increase-like.
The Conservatives would freeze government hiring while cutting non-staffing costs. Those costs are $24.1-billion today; five years from now, the platform says Ottawa will be saving $5-billion a year. That won’t be easy, or painless.
Cutting infrastructure spending will be a similar story. The Liberal infrastructure plan picks up part of the cost of projects from coast to coast, such as new public transit. It’s budgeted at $187-billion over 12 years. The Conservatives say they’ll stretch that over 15 years – so, see, it’s not really a cut. That’s like your boss telling you he’s not lowering your annual salary, he’s just going to pay it over 15 months.
Only days ago, Mr. Scheer promised to fund two new subway lines in the Toronto area. But he’s now promising $18.1-billion less for infrastructure, across the country, over the next five years. That could lead to the cancellation or downsizing of at least some provincial and municipal projects. It’s impossible to say which projects might be hit, but eventually, something, somewhere, may have to give.
Scaling back infrastructure spending could have consequences, but they won’t be immediate, and they may be hard for voters to spot. Compared to cutting social programs, or transfers to people or provinces, it’s a path of least resistance.
Finally, the Conservatives are raising taxes. Yes, really. They’re promising a 3-per-cent tax on foreign social-media platforms, search engines and online marketplaces, inspired by similar levies in Europe. That’s expected to pull in $500-million a year by 2022.
The Conservatives would also give the Canada Revenue Agency $750-million a year to figure out who isn’t paying as much tax as they should. It’s all a bit fuzzy, but some people and businesses, likely with deeper pockets, would pay more. By 2024, that’s expected to deliver an extra $3.4-billion a year.
Nothing in the Conservative platform is earth-shattering or nefarious. What it is, in the end, is the offering of a party that knows enough to be scared of its own shadow.