Back in the olden days, vote-buying was a crude affair. Politicians offered naked bribes to voters – a two-dollar bill, a shot of rye, a job for their lazy brother-in-law.
We are more sophisticated than that now. Today the bribes are on a colossal scale. And they're not done on the sly. Politicians make their offer as loudly and publicly as possible, preferably by posing beside a giant printing press that's about to issue a big fat cheque just for you.
This week the Harper Government (as it prefers to style itself ) will hit hard-working Canadian families with a pot of gold – in the form of much fatter child-benefit cheques. Lucky parents will now get $160 a month for every kid under 6, and another $60 for each one between 6 and 17. (That's a lot more than the little darlings are worth now.) Better still, these cheques are retroactive back to January, because unfortunately the printing presses weren't working until now, which means that parents will get a windfall exactly three months before the election. Sheer coincidence!
"This is the single biggest one-time direct payment in Canadian history," Stephen Harper reminded his Conservative caucus in a letter on the weekend. It adds up to a whopping $3-billion, and although it came from you and me in the first place, Mr. Harper is pretending it comes straight from him.
Nobody ever claimed that subtlety is the Harper Government's strong point. Its basic election strategy is as subtle as a two-by-four. Mr. Harper is relying on two emotions: greed and fear. He wants you to remember that even if you're not that grateful for the dough, you're going to lose it if the bad guys win.
"If Trudeau or Mulcair form the next government, they will take these benefits away," Mr. Harper told his MPs to remind us, over and over again.
There's something brilliant in this simplicity. Against a threat like that, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau scarcely has a chance. He, too, has a souped-up child-benefits plan – one that's even sweeter than Mr. Harper's. Most economists favour Mr. Trudeau's plan. But do you think voters noticed? They did not. Your average voter is too busy to run a detailed analysis of the numbers. Your average voter wants to keep the bird he has in hand. Or so Mr. Harper hopes. He is milking the incumbency advantage for all it's worth.
Mr. Trudeau says we should vote for him because middle-class Canadians "feel like no one is on their side." In fact, everyone is on their side. Middle-class Canadians (providing they have kids) are this year's holy grail. No one's talking about poor Canadians these days. That's because middle-class Canadians worry that if poor Canadians get more, they will probably get less. Also, poor Canadians don't vote.
And that is why we are treated to an endless stream of warm and fuzzy tax breaks aimed at Soccer Mom and Dad. The child-fitness tax credit (to name but one example) is the contemporary equivalent of a shot of rye.
And how does NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair stack up in the race for the parental vote? Not well, I'm afraid. He's peddling $15-a-day child care, even though he can't say how he'd pay for it, and it's gift for affluent families, and it discriminates against parents who choose to stay at home. If put to a vote, most Canadians would probably vote against it. Which doesn't mean that Mr. Mulcair won't be the next prime minister.
Is anybody fooled by this sudden outburst of solicitude for our middle-class children? I doubt it. The voters are as cynical as the politicians. Most voters know there are far more efficient ways to deliver tax relief, ones that don't require printing presses, cheques and postage stamps. But that's not how governments behave. They want to take the credit. If Mr. Harper could figure out how to deliver you a bag of cash in person, no doubt he would.
Let's see … say you have three kids, ages 4, 8 and 10. That adds up to $160 + $60 + $60 x seven months, which could buy you a not-bad summer break. Or a lot of beer and popcorn. Whatever.