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With new platform, Liberals chart course back to Trudeauville

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, centre, speaks with the liberal platform on stage during a campaign stop in Halifax on Sunday, April 3, 2011.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In 94 pages, Michael Ignatieff has unveiled a new Liberal Red Book that asks Canadians to fundamentally reject not only Stephen Harper's Conservatives, but everything they've stood for. Over the remaining four weeks of this election campaign, the Liberal Leader will stake his political future on trying to convince you.

Whether he succeeds depends on whether you believe that Canada should return to its Trudeauesque past of increased social spending paid for by higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, or continue the Conservative emphasis on keeping taxes low while balancing the books.

The choice couldn't be simpler, or more stark.

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The Liberal platform seeks to restore and expand the social safety net by investing more than $5.5-billion annually in education, child care, home care, the environment and other priorities, to be paid for by hiking corporate taxes and taxing a portion of income from wealthy Canadians who purchase stock options at below market value.

In an important revelation, the Liberals now intend not only to scrap the F-35 fighter program, but to defer replacing the aging fleet of CF-18s until "it is necessary."

And while the Liberals promise to sharply reduce the federal deficit, they have no immediate plans to eliminate it.

This represents the antithesis of Conservative priorities of balancing the books and continuing to lower business taxes while preserving military procurement as a core spending priority.

The competing Liberal and Conservative visions hinge on fundamentally conflicting assumptions: The Liberal platform assumes that Canada has confidently recovered from the past recession, making it a safe risk to ask business to pay more to help working and middle-class families.

The Conservatives envision an economy emerging uncertainly from the Great Downturn in a world that is still filled with turmoil and risk, making sound books the first concern.

Liberals like to say that in election campaigns, hope trumps fear. Unless, Conservatives respond, the hope is false and the fears are real.

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A Liberal government would also restore the past by returning to the days of national shared-cost social programs, such as the proposed federal-provincial child-care strategy. It wants to reform the Canada Pension Plan, which also requires provincial consent.

It even wants to get into the school yard, through a joint fed-prov strategy to increase the amount of exercise students receive.

In a proposal that would bring a smile to Trudeau's ghost, the Liberals' industrial strategy targets winners and losers, through federal incentives in green energy, biosciences and digital technology, while also toughening the criteria for foreign direct investment in Canada.

While the Conservatives have also, over the years, offered fiscal incentives to boost some parts of the economy, Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty never envisioned anything as ambitious - or intrusive, depending on your point of view - as this.

Some contrasts are ones of degree rather than kind. The proposed Conservative budget offered $400-million for one year to promote energy-efficient home renovations. The Red Book would make that program permanent. The Conservatives offered $300-million a year for low-income seniors through the Guaranteed Income Supplement. The Liberals are offering $700- million.

But while the two parties' policies sometimes overlap - they're both very keen to help volunteer firefighters - the underlying philosophies couldn't be farther apart.

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Look at it like this: The Liberal platform proposes spending $80-million over four years to encourage farmers' markets that sell locally grown food.

What do you think of that?

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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