There's a saying that dates back to ancient Greece: In war, truth is the first casualty. If that's the case, then on economic policy, Stephen Harper's Conservatives are at war.
As their re-election campaign has gone into a potentially perilous skid, the Conservatives have stepped up their advertising blitz on the economic front, portraying Mr. Harper as the only leader capable of competently guiding the Canadian economy. As those ads lay them out, the hare-brained tax-and-spend plans of the other guys (especially Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, the primary target) do sound scary indeed.
If only the claims were true.
Well, of course, there are slivers of truth. Half-truths. Truths that conveniently stop before telling the entire story. This kind of stretching and twisting and omitting is hardly new territory in campaign attack ads, for parties of all political stripes. But having expended many hours and brain cells examining campaign ads for this column, I can say without hesitation that the latest Conservative ads take this to a level their opponents haven't even approached. They paint pictures of their opponents' economic platforms that are about as close to reality as a Dali canvas.
Consider the Conservatives' latest wave of anti-Trudeau economic ads, which contrast short lists of Liberal promises with Conservative policy positions. Their bottom line is that a vote for Mr. Trudeau means "higher taxes" – while (oops) forgetting to mention that one of Mr. Trudeau's central campaign pledges is a 7-per-cent income tax cut for middle-income earners. They say the Liberals will kill the Conservative government's monthly child care cheques to Canadian families – while (oops) failing to note that he would replace them with similar child benefits that would actually give lower- and middle-income families even bigger cheques. They worry about the Liberal plan to cancel income-splitting, "something families and seniors rely on" – while (oops) not clarifying that the Liberals intend to leave seniors' income-splitting untouched.
Then there's the charge that the Liberals will impose a $1,000 payroll tax "on the typical worker." What? Did Mr. Trudeau promise this? Well, as you might imagine, the answer is "sort of." But also, "sort of not."
For this line item, the ad cites an article in The Globe and Mail on May 27, in which Justin Trudeau indicated his party supports mandatory increases to Canada Pension Plan contributions in order to increase the retirement incomes that CPP provides. Mr. Trudeau did not apply a dollar figure to any such payments, but talked about negotiating a mandatory CPP expansion with the provinces, something along the lines of the increased benefits the planned Ontario Retirement Pension Plan would deliver to Ontarians. The party's actual platform only says that a Liberal government would "work with the provinces and territories, workers, employers, and retiree organizations to enhance the Canada Pension Plan."
The Liberals don't even have a concrete plan, let alone a price tag. But if you look at the premiums under the Ontario plan, an equivalent increase in CPP premiums would amount to about $900 a year in payroll deductions for the average Canadian wage earner – in the ballpark of the Conservatives' claim. Hey, good enough. Slap it in an ad and let's run with it! The Conservatives contrast this with their own plan to cut payroll taxes by 20 per cent. This comes from their pledge to reduce Employment Insurance premiums, beginning in 2017. Again, they forgot to mention the Liberals also plan to reduce EI premiums – though by only 12 per cent, while expanding EI coverage.
The Conservatives are less worried about the New Democratic Party at this stage in the game and thus are launching fewer fib-missiles their way. Still, their anti-NDP ads hammer home the notion that the NDP plans reckless spending – even though leader Tom Mulcair has committed to balanced budgets, and his spending plans don't look wildly out of line with the Conservatives' own commitments announced in the lead-up to the election over the past year.
The Conservatives are not alone in the slinging of misleading mud. A recent NDP ad talks about Mr. Harper negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal "in secret," an image of cloak-and-dagger skulduggery that is a bit of a stretch given Canada has been in widely reported talks with 11 other countries for more than three years. The Liberals and the NDP have said repeatedly that Mr. Harper has the worst economic record since the Great Depression, ignoring the fact that his government also weathered the worst global economic crisis since that depression (and did so remarkably well at that), and have presided over the creation of nearly one million new jobs in the past five years. Mr. Trudeau has talked about Mr. Harper standing by while the economy "slides into recession," even though the Liberals' economic advisers know full well that, by most meaningful measures, Canada was probably never in a recession this year.
If the economy really is the biggest issue in this campaign – and despite the odd distraction, it most certainly is – then it would have been nice if voters weren't forced to wade through the fear-mongering muck to compare and contrast what our leaders are proposing. I guess maybe the second casualty of this war is respect for the intelligence of the electorate caught in the crossfire.