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Opinion On tax cuts, Trudeau shouldn’t play on the Tories’ turf

The Harper Conservatives have made the Trudeau Liberals come to them. The Conservatives have set the terms of the national debate, and the Liberals have responded. There are exceptions, of course, but the party that frames a national debate usually wins it.

Yes, the two parties differ, especially as the Liberals now want higher taxes on those earning more than $200,000 a year and the Conservatives do not. But the essence of their political fight is essentially about which party can cut taxes more and in the most politically enticing way on what both call the "middle class." (The poor have been all but excised from political discussion, as if they did not exist.)

Cutting taxes is the Conservatives' bread-and-butter. It's what gets them up in the morning. They own the cutting taxes mantra. Now the Trudeau Liberals want to fight in the same political space. It's a fight the Liberals will be hard-pressed to win.

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Some voters will perhaps parse the tax plan unveiled this week by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and compare it favorably to the policies of the Harper Conservatives. Most voters, however, will be confused by the competing plans.

The Conservatives have a Child Tax Benefit and the Universal Child Care Benefit that they expanded in the recent budget; the Liberals propose a Canada Child Benefit, a "tax free" payment of up to $533 a month for each child. The Conservatives' plan will cost over $4-billion, the Liberals' plan $2-billion. Then the Liberals throw in a middle-class tax cut costing another $3-billion, as a response to other tax goodies the Conservatives have spread around.

Middle-income voters will struggle to sort out the different plans. If they vote on which party has done or will do the most for them – which the two major parties seem to believe the forthcoming election will be about – then why not stick with the party that's been handing out lower taxes since being elected? Not by accident, the Conservatives' expanded Universal Child Care Benefit cheques will be arriving in the mail before the summer. Politically, the cheques are a bird in hand as opposed to the Liberals' plan that will remain in the bush.

To put matters another way, if the defining issue of the campaign will be which party will lower the tax burden the most for the middle class, the Conservatives' will likely win. The irony of this competition to lower taxes the most is that almost every pollster finds that reducing taxes is not the most important issue for Canadians. Only a minority of Canadians list lower taxes as among their highest priorities for Canada.

Leaving the NDP aside for the moment, the Liberals' policy plan speaks volumes about what Canadian politics – and perhaps we might say Canada – has become. The Conservatives, as we know, do not believe in collective solutions to societal problems. Their instinct is not to use the government to build a better society, because they fundamentally distrust the state's ability to get it right.

Conservatives say time and again: Taxpayers not governments know best how to spend "hard-earned dollars." If you want collective action to achieve social goals, vote for someone else. National visions, collective dreams, large goals have disappeared from Canadian politics, replaced by appeals exclusively to economic self-interest.

The Conservatives election pitch will be simple: lower taxes, smaller government and keeping Canadians safe. Now, the Liberals have essentially signed off on the first two Conservative slogans, while suggesting they would achieve these goals somewhat differently.

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The Liberals' biggest divergence from the Conservatives – and from the NDP that has pledged no tax increases on any Canadian, just companies – is to create a new tax bracket of 33 per cent for those with incomes above $200,000. This new tax, the Liberals believe, will bring in an additional $3-billion, which it likely will not, given the ability of people earning this kind of income to restructure their affairs.

Taxing the more affluent is likely good politics, except perhaps in Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, where provincial governments just raised taxes on the affluent. In Quebec, taxes on the better-off have always been the highest in Canada.

The Liberals will also pay for a small part of their tax plan by using some of the anticipated federal $1.7-billion surplus for 2016-2017. Come to think of it, isn't this precisely what Conservatives would do: return a surplus to "hard-working taxpayers."

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