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Harper's promises are for far in the future

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks at a campaign rally in London, Ont.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

On the election promises menu Stephen Harper is offering voters, you can't have your dessert until you've finished your broccoli.

Eight days into the 2011 election campaign, the Conservatives are making a virtue of restraint.

The Tory Leader's rule of thumb so far in making pledges is that new, big-ticket election goodies targeting individual voters come with a catch.

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They won't be implemented until the federal government has dug itself out of deficit. The shortfall this fiscal year will still be $29.3-billion.

The latest example, unveiled Sunday, is a $275-million adult tax fitness credit that would yield a tax break of up to $75 for those who claim the full $500 in fees such as gym memberships. A Conservative official said this would not proceed until Ottawa's finances are in better shape.

The same goes for the centrepiece Conservative election promise unveiled so far this campaign: a $2.5-billion tax cut for parents with kids. This won't take effect before the federal government's books are balanced, Mr. Harper announced March 28. The pledge, to allow income-sharing between parents for tax purposes, will average $1,300 in tax savings for 1.8 million families.

On paper at least, Ottawa is not projected to run surpluses again for four years, which would put some of the most attractive promises elusively out of reach in the short term. But ever mindful that their pledges can't seem too far off, the Conservatives keep reminding reporters covering the Harper campaign that balanced books could arrive earlier. Officials say this certainly happen within three years if Canada's lucky.

The delayed-gratification message is a deliberate attempt to contrast the Tories with the Liberals, who are promising to raise taxes, and roll back Tory corporate tax cut commitments.

It fits Mr. Harper's effort to cast the Liberals as profligate spenders, even though a former Liberal government was the one who last tamed federal deficits in the 1990s.

On Sunday, the Conservative Leader attacked the Liberal platform as shaky math and told a London, Ont. rally: "Mr. Ignatieff put out the NDP platform today," he said.

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A glaring exception to this show of prudence, however, is the $2.2-billion in HST transition compensation that Mr. Harper promised for Quebec last week in a bid to woo the province. That won't be postponed by the task of mopping up Ottawa's red ink. The Tories defend this faster timeline, saying they've already given Ontario and British Columbia money to help them cope with the move to a harmonized sales tax.

The Conservatives, of course, are also still committed to proceeding with spending measures in their 2011 budget, which was shelved after the Tory government was defeated March 25. However the relatively tiny fiscal plan offered $7.6-billion of measures over half a decade, which averages $1.5-billion in additional spending per year.

The Tories spent Sunday deliberately drawing contrasts with the Liberals and their policies.

The very day that Mr. Ignatieff was unveiling his election platform inside an Ottawa hotel Sunday, Mr. Harper's campaign had him promising new tax breaks for sports fees and playing a street hockey game for the cameras.

It appeared a deliberate effort to differentiate himself from Mr. Ignatieff, a man the Conservatives delight in trying to paint as elitist and out of touch.

TV cameras in tow, Mr. Harper ventured to a suburban Ottawa parking lot to play pick-up street hockey with 30 kids and local Tory candidate Pierre Poilievre.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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