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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau looks on as Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks during the federal election French-language leaders debate, Sept. 8, 2021, in Gatineau, Que.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Now we know what this campaign is about. The words have been all over the place, but the numbers made the differences clear. And they are big.

The Liberals would spend a lot of money on child care and health care. The Conservatives would not.

The Conservatives would instead devote a lot to a series of tax breaks, particularly for low-income workers. The Liberals would not.

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Pick your poison.

Or pick another poison if neither suits. But at this stage, it seems the postelection role of the NDP, Bloc Québécois and Green Party will probably be to try to influence a government, likely a minority, of red or blue stripe.

And now that Liberals and Conservatives have revealed their numbers, the difference between their priorities seem bigger.

We know one thing that is not at issue: budget deficits. The Conservatives and the Liberals forecast nearly the same deficit five years from now, $24.7-billion and $32-billion, respectively. The difference, on a forecast for a $450-billion-ish budget five years hence, is essentially a rounding error.

Yet there is a real cleavage between Conservative tax breaks and Liberal social spending, and different approaches to boosting the economy.

Justin Trudeau pushes his way to centre of debate like a leader running out of time

French-language debate: Federal leaders spar over child care, COVID-19 recovery

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has talked a lot about funding health care, promising “historic investments.” But his promise to increase health transfers to provinces by 6 per cent a year doesn’t add up to much. That’s because the current transfer plan already sets a floor for annual increases based on nominal GDP – inflation and economic growth – and that is already expected to be close to 6 per cent a year over the next few years.

Mr. O’Toole’s promise to increase health transfers by $60-billion over a decade amounts to just $3.6-billion in the next five years – so presumably, the other $56.4-billion will be in the following five years, in the mandate of whichever government is elected in a 2025 election.

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When you add the other Conservative health care promises, it comes to a total of $5.1-billion over five years – about $1-billion a year when provinces are spending upward of $170-billion.

The Liberals promise to spend five times as much, $25-billion over five years. Some sums that they count, such as $1-billion for a proof-of-vaccination fund, aren’t for health services per se, but Justin Trudeau’s party is proposing substantial additional sums for health care, and Mr. O’Toole’s is not.

But the Conservatives are proposing to go big on something they haven’t talked about enough: the Canada Workers Benefit. That’s a tax break for folks who are employed but earn a modest income, under $24,573 for an individual.

Mr. O’Toole is promising to double the benefit to $2,800 for an individual. That’s not a broad-based tax cut that will affect a large portion of the population, but it will have a big impact on the people who receive it. And it is huge – the biggest single item on the Conservative list of promises, at a cost to the federal treasury of $24.1-billion over five years. The Liberals won’t do that.

The Conservatives also promise a series of business tax breaks, including a 5-per-cent tax credit for capital investments in 2022 and 2023 that would cost $13.8-billion, as their plan to boost the economy.

And the biggest policy difference is child care. The Liberals signed funding deals with some provinces for $10-a-day care, and budgeted $27-billion over five years. The Conservatives would scrap that, and instead expand the tax credit for child-care expenses – a much smaller break for parents with a price tag one-tenth the size, at $2.6-billion.

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As much as anything, that’s a difference on economic policy, too. The Liberals argue that a national subsidized child-care plan would boost economic growth for the long term by increasing the participation of women in the labour force – as it has in Quebec. Big-business groups and bank economists have also backed that idea. And the odd thing is the Conservative platform does, too.

Mr. O’Toole’s platform quotes an International Monetary Fund report that suggested accessible child care could increase Canada’s productivity – but chooses to devote far less resources to it.

There are other differences, of course, on climate change, COVID-19 policy, and a host of smaller promises. And there is still a sense in this campaign that the two biggest parties haven’t fully captured the priorities of Canadians. But now that we have numbers, the difference between them is a lot clearer.

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