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globe editorial

Some elections offer radical choices. Think of the vote in 1993, held in the shadow of Meech and Charlottetown. That election ended up overturning a half-century of Canadian politics, with voters signing the death warrant of the federal Progressive Conservative Party, and giving life to its radically different replacements, Reform and the Bloc Québécois. Or think of 1988, when Canadians were asked to decide whether they supported the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, or opposed it. Voters had to choose between two polar opposites.

This election isn't like that – at least not on the face of it. But look deeper. Three distinct visions of Canada, and three distinct strategies for Canadian prosperity, were on offer in Thursday's Globe and Mail debate on the economy.

For full Globe coverage of the debate, click here.

Let's start with the Conservative Party platform. A vote for the party in power for a decade is, by definition, a vote for the status quo. Leader Stephen Harper is running on his economic record, and his economic philosophy, which is about making government smaller, handing more money back to Canadians in the form of tax cuts and targeted tax breaks, and balancing the budget.

He can't claim that Canada's economy is perfect, and he doesn't. But the pitch he has made consistently during this election, and which he delivered again and again in Thursday's debate, is that the New Democrats and the Liberals would make things worse.

For many voters, that's a real worry, and the NDP and the Liberals know it. That's why large parts of the opposition platforms reinforce what the Conservatives are offering, and embrace at least part of the Conservative philosophy. The Liberals have a plan for a new round of tax cuts for the middle class. The NDP, though it wants to slightly raise taxes on corporations, would at the same time lower them for small businesses. Both parties back the Conservative child-care strategy of giving money directly to Canadian parents. The first Universal Child Care Benefit cheques were mailed to Canadian families this summer. The NDP supports the program; the Liberals would continue it while making only the wealthiest families ineligible.

Debates are about points of difference, so the many ways in which Justin Trudeau's and Tom Mulcair's platforms embrace Mr. Harper's status quo were not much on offer on Thursday night.

But there are also deep, fundamental differences. Consider the issue of the deficit. Mr. Mulcair is challenging Mr. Harper's vision of Canada, but the NDP platform agrees with the Conservatives that, whatever choices a government makes, it must make them within the envelope of a balanced budget. Mr. Trudeau's party, in contrast, believes it would be economically beneficial to run deficits – small deficits, but deficits nonetheless – over the next few years.

And this is where the 2015 election gets radical.

The Liberals are arguing that a $10-billion a year deficit, which they propose to run for at least two years, is not a crisis or even a problem, but rather a very good idea, allowing the country to invest in long-term infrastructure at ultra-low interest rates. That view is backed by a growing number of economists. Polls suggest many voters, possibly even a majority, are sympathetic.

This profound disagreement on the deficit explains why the two opposition parties reacted so differently to this week's announcement that Ottawa recorded a surplus last year. The NDP agreed with the Conservatives that this was good news, also making it easier for Mr. Mulcair to both balance the budget and meet his spending promises. Mr. Trudeau, in contrast, accused Mr. Harper of deliberately harming the economy, by cutting more spending than necessary, to achieve a purely political objective.

The Liberal decision to challenge long-standing political orthodoxy on the deficit also means they have more budget ammunition than the NDP. It's a simple matter of arithmetic. Mr. Mulcair promises to run surpluses of at least $3-billion a year; Mr. Trudeau promises deficits of up to $10-billion. All else equal, that leaves Mr. Trudeau with an extra $13-billion in his pocket.

Yes, in many other respects the parties are not far apart. The Liberals and the NDP plan to spend only slightly more than the Tories. The Liberals want to slightly increase taxes on the rich and slightly lower them on the middle class, while the NDP will slightly raise business taxes. Neither will dramatically change the tax system. The NDP want to spend a bit more than the Tories on infrastructure, and the Liberals a bit more than that, but it's a matter of degrees.

But a change of a few degrees can be a tipping point. The difference between ice and water is, after all, just a fraction of a degree. Sometimes a small change is barely perceptible. Sometimes, it's a radical difference. The Liberal position on the deficit is a big philosophical shift, with huge implications and possibilities. The question is: How comfortable are voters with the economic status quo, and how radically do they want the next government to change it?