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From left, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pose for photos prior to the federal election leaders debate in Ottawa. (Paul Chiasson/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
From left, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pose for photos prior to the federal election leaders debate in Ottawa. (Paul Chiasson/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

Noisy differences, quiet agreements with Harper Add to ...

In this campaign, amid all the venomous attack ads and excessive rhetoric, you can hear the silence of agreement.

Most of the agreeing is on Stephen Harper's terms. Assumptions he's made, and policies he's put in place, are accepted by one or more of the other parties. And they have come more to him than he to them.

Mr. Harper has governed on keeping taxes low - and lowering them where possible. His major tools have been cutting the GST, introducing a thicket of targeted tax credits and raising the basic income limit for paying tax. These have been worth billions of dollars, and both the Liberals and NDP would keep them all. Both parties want to roll back corporate tax cuts and, in the NDP's case, raise levels. So on corporate tax cuts, the parties do differ. But on the much larger sources of revenue - personal and consumption taxes - the parties are at one with Mr. Harper.

So nervous are the opposition parties of being labelled "tax and spenders," they don't even propose increased taxes on the wealthy. Nor do they propose to scrap the benefit programs Mr. Harper introduced, such as the child benefit payment that's his feeble answer for child care, or new institutions and programs that have proliferated under the free-spending Conservatives.

Rather than paying for some of their own proposals by eliminating these Conservative initiatives, the opposition parties are building on top of them. Presumably, they calculate that the Conservative initiatives are now seen as an "entitlement" by those receiving them and, such, are politically risky to remove.

The parties also seem to agree with Mr. Harper's time frame for eliminating the deficit, although the Prime Minister advanced it by one year during the campaign without giving a clear reason how this could be achieved. But neither the Liberals nor the NDP is doing a McGuinty - that is, stretching out the return to a balanced budget for seven years, as Ontario's Premier seems content to do.

Once the opposition parties more or less accepted Mr. Harper's fiscal timetable, and bought into his low-tax agenda for individuals (including the wealthy), they were left with playing with corporate tax rates and, in the NDP's case, plucking from mid-air an invented $7-billion Ottawa would earn from a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Put another way, the squabbling over taxes and revenues was really at the margin of what Ottawa spends and raises in a given year.

On foreign policy, the Liberals and Conservatives agree on Canada's joining NATO's bombing of Libya and keeping troops in Afghanistan for training the local army. (The NDP wants the troops to be brought home.) The three parties don't even differ all that much on the F-35 fighter jet. The Conservatives are committed to the F-35; the Liberals aren't necessarily against that model, but they want an open competition run in Canada. The party's ads suggest the Liberals won't buy a fighter jet, which is not the case. The NDP says vaguely it would "review" the decision. All the parties, including the NDP, agree on current and projected levels of defence spending.

They all support trade-killing supply management in agriculture, billions of dollars more for health care, more money for aboriginals, a federal loan guarantee for development of Labrador hydroelectric power, pension improvements (albeit by different means), various industrial incentives, regional development agencies that now spread across the country, and so on.

The Liberals and New Democrats, then, have paid the Harper government the supreme credit of quietly accepting many of its policies and fiscal assumptions. The Harper government, in turn, has paid past Liberal governments the compliment of imitation by splashing money around Canada in a way long removed from what the Reform Party, Mr. Harper's early political home, thought appropriate. How the Harper government used the recession to milk political benefit from its Economic Action Plan was torn from the pages of the Trudeau government's Special Recovery Capital Works Program during the recession of the 1980s.

There are, of course, differences between and among the parties. The election has been, loudly, all about them. But the quiet agreements have been more widespread than the campaign would encourage voters to believe.

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