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Editorials Get ready to rumble: Canada’s federal parties are preparing for battle

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 1, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

It can be dangerous to read too much into even the most scientific of public opinion polls, given that answers are a snapshot of feelings at a moment in time, subject to change, liable to evolution, influenced by the news of the day and shaped by the wording of the questions. But the results of a Nanos survey recently conducted for The Globe and Mail suggest that Canadians are overwhelmingly united as to the number-one issue in this fall's federal election: It is, no surprise, the economy.

When asked what they thought would decide the election – "the party and leader with the best plan for the Canadian economy, or the party and leader with the best plan to fight terrorists?" – 90 per cent of respondents picked the economy. Just 4 per cent said terrorism.

Of course, the average person is perfectly capable of worrying about both issues simultaneously, and many others things besides. Most of us aren't single-issue voters. But it's hard to doubt the poll's finding that, less than seven months before the fixed election date, what's top of mind for most Canadians is not foreign policy or even domestic security threats, but close-to-home matters of dollars and cents.

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Which helps explain why a new series of radio ads from Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party are focused squarely on those concerns. Mr. Trudeau promises an expansion of the Canada Pension Plan, a cancellation of future cuts to Old Age Security – in 2023, the age for receiving the pension is set to begin rising from 65 to 67 – and ditching the Conservative government's plan to allow income-splitting for parents with children. Every analysis of that last policy shows it will benefit few Canadians, and the main beneficiaries will be upper-income earners; Mr. Trudeau says he'll "cancel that tax break for the rich" and instead put the money toward unspecified help for the middle class "and those hoping to join it."

In the coming months, expect to see more competing policy proposals from each of the parties. But elections aren't just about tallying up promises and accounting for commitments. An election is part shopping list, part leap of faith. You're voting for a candidate with a platform, not the other way around. A name is on a ballot, not a list of promises. Those promises are subject to change; the person you send to Ottawa isn't, at least until the next election. Putting someone into office isn't a contractual relationship. It's closer to a blank cheque.

Which is why, even if the economy is top of mind for Canadians, issues of culture, identity, mindset and moral outlook matter to those very same voters. People want to know: Which party is my kind of people? Which one sees things as I do? Who represents my kind of Canada? Whom can I trust?

That's why the first of those latest Liberal Party ads opens with Mr. Trudeau saying the following: "Looking out for one another isn't something Canadians do, it's who we are."

Expect the Conservatives to draw sharp but subtle differences with that definition of who Canadians are, and what Canadians want. Expect the NDP to aim to show that they, and not the Liberals, are the party of looking out for one another.

In the coming election, every party will have its own special challenge. The Conservatives carry the weight and the benefits of incumbency. The benefits include the ability to set the agenda with a pre-election budget, to be delivered on April 21. They include spending taxpayer dollars on a $7.5-million, post-budget advertising blitz, which will ostensibly offer a helpful, non-partisan explanation of government policies, but which everyone knows will function as a barely disguised Conservative ad.

The weight of incumbency includes an economy that, thanks to a collapsed oil price, is looking less healthy than ever. The government also faces the challenge of its own, self-inflicted wounds. The Harper Conservatives have often been their own worst enemies, seemingly determined to chip away at their credibility with swing voters.

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Which Conservative Party will come to the fore over the coming months? The one that did so much to reach out to minorities and new Canadians, proving to be the opposite of its American Republican cousins? Or the one that has tried to pit Canadians of different ethnicities against one another, in the form of a campaign to demonize the exceptionally small number of Muslim women who wear head- and face-coverings? The party with a long history of advocacy for limited government, individual rights and respect for democratic process? Or the one that has made Parliament more of a sideshow than ever, and has used fears of crime and terrorism to push policies that have civil libertarians – often small-c conservatives themselves – raising red flags?

Which party can you trust? Which represents your kind of Canada?

The parties have moved closer together on some issues, but there are still deep divisions. In some ways, deeper than ever.

Take retirement: The Liberals want Canadians to save more, together, so that everyone eventually gets a larger CPP pension. The Conservatives have resisted that approach, and instead want to encourage Canadians to save more, individually, for their own retirements.

Take child care: The NDP wants to spend $5-billion to create a national child care strategy, believing that government incentives can create the most effective, and cost-effective, daycare program. The Conservatives, in contrast, are putting more money into the pockets of parents – and leaving it up to those parents to decide whether to spend it on daycare, on other child care arrangements, or as a way to support spending more time at home with kids.

On October 19, we'll find out what Canadians think: Who represents their Canada, and whom they trust.

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