Parties overlap in pocketbook appeals to voters

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Parties overlap in pocketbook appeals to voters


After Monday night’s election debate, you might be left wondering what you should do with your vote, or if it even matters.

Well, it does matter, because one way or another, the result of the Oct. 21 federal election will determine which party forms our next government.

It will also determine whether one party wins a majority, giving it the leeway to do largely as it pleases, or if the result is a minority government that needs the support of at least one other party to deliver on its various campaign promises.

So what might the first legislative session of the next government look like? With polls suggesting the most likely scenario is a majority Liberal or Conservative government, or a minority government, the Star, in a five-part series, does some crystal-ball-gazing to give you an idea. Today, we look at affordability issues.

Liberal majority

Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday that a Liberal government would act fast to cut taxes. Declaring that “families are still feeling the crunch,” Trudeau told a Markham audience that the tax cut “will be the first thing we do.”

Picking up on the theme of their 2015 campaign, the Liberals are making the middle class a focus of their campaign messaging this time around. On income tax, the Liberals have committed to raise the basic personal exemption to $15,000, up from $12,069. Phased in over four years, this benefit would save a typical family $600 a year, the Liberals say; those making more than $147,667 would see smaller savings, and anyone with earnings more than $210,371 would see no benefit at all.

The Liberals made the Canada Child Benefit a signature element of their first budget in 2016 and credit the initiative with helping lift tens of thousands of families out of poverty. It’s likely then that the party would use the first budget of its next term to make good on a promise to make the benefit more generous, boosting it by 15 per cent for children under the age of 1.

It’s important to remember that when politicians talk “affordability,” it usually involves measures that cost the government — either through spending measures, such as enhanced student grants or child benefits, or tax changes. At a time when Ottawa is already running a deficit, the price tag of each measure will affect how quickly some campaign promises become a reality.

Some of the affordability promises dangled by all parties carry price tags topping $1 billion. For example, the Liberal platform promises a 10 per cent increase in Old Age Security payments for those over the age of 75, at a cost of $1.6 billion in 2020-21.

The Liberals have also committed help for students with more generous grants, more flexibility to repay loans, and a two-year grace period to begin repayment — and then only when they are earning more than $35,000. Some of these measures could be introduced to coincide with the start of the 2020 school year.

Conservative majority

The Conservatives have also centred their campaign around the theme of making life more affordable for Canadians. Leader Andrew Scheer says the first act of a Conservative government would be to scrap the federal carbon price. He frames it as an affordability issue, not an environmental one, saying it drives up the cost of everyday living, at least in the provinces where it was imposed by Ottawa. (The Liberals say their rebates — worth $307 for an Ontario family — more than offset the impact of carbon pricing for consumers).

Like the Liberals, the Conservatives are promising a broad tax cut, reducing the rate on income under $47,630 to 13.75 per cent from 15 per cent. That would save an individual taxpayer as much as $440 a year, the party says. The cut would be phased in over two years with the rate initially dropping to 14.5 per cent in January 2021.

The Conservatives have also promised a package of smaller tax measures that don’t carry a big cost — about $566 million in 2020-21, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer — making them a possibility in their first budget. These include restoring tax credits for transit users and for children’s arts, education and fitness programs that had been implemented by the previous Conservative government but axed by the Liberals. The party has also promised to expand the disability tax credit.

For seniors, the Conservatives say they would increase the age credit by $1,000, giving those earning up to $37,790 a year an extra $150. It would be gradually phased out for those earning more.

Another populist measure is the pledge to remove the GST from home heating bills, which the Conservatives say could save homeowners about $100 a year. The cost in lost revenue has been pegged at about $1.6 billion, a potential roadblock to it happening right away.

Minority government

While minority governments depend on parties finding common ground on policy, the New Democrats and Green Party have already raised doubts about offering any support for a Conservative minority government.

However, unlike the sharp divides that exist over climate change policy, affordability proposals cut across party lines, opening the door for politicians of all stripes to find agreement.

For example, the Liberals and Conservatives have each proposed making maternity and parental benefits tax-free, and both of those parties are dangling the promise of financial assistance for homeowners who want to make their homes more energy efficient.

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And the two front-runners are not alone in making a pocketbook appeal to voters.

While the Green Party platform is heavily focused on initiatives to combat climate change and environmental measures, it does note “immediate anxieties about affordability — in housing, prescription drugs and education.”

The NDP platform also addresses affordability concerns head-on. Jagmeet Singh’s party has tied affordability to the issue of health care, claiming that Canadians are forgoing needed drugs because they can’t afford the prescriptions. The NDP is proposing a pharmacare plan that would underwrite drug costs for Canadians.

The Liberals and Green Party are proposing pharmacare plans too, and like the New Democrats, they have also pledged improved child care. While these two issues could ease the financial pressures on Canadians, both require negotiations with the provinces, putting them out of reach for the early months of a new government.

The Liberals could find support from the NDP on improving child benefits or raising old age security benefits. Both parties have pledged to reduce cellphone bills — the NDP says it would institute a price cap, while the Liberals claim they would cut fees by 25 per cent — but it’s not clear how a new government would achieve this.

The Liberals, New Democrats and Greens all support a minimum wage of $15 an hour for federally regulated workers. The Liberals say they’d do it in 2020, while the NDP wants it right away.

All four national parties have also pledged various measures to address the rising cost of home ownership and the shortage of affordable housing. The Conservatives, for example, would extend mortgage amortization periods and make a financing “stress test” less restrictive. Those measures could be introduced in a first budget.

The Liberals say they would expand the First-Time Home Buyer Incentive to include homes worth up to $800,000.

The NDP has set a goal of creating 500,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years. The Green Party proposes a dedicated Minister of Housing to work with provinces and steer new federal investments in housing.

But buyer beware — the parties have also made proposals that could cost Canadians, and support for one of those measures could be the price of propping up a minority government. The Green Party, for example, wants to slap a 10 per cent tax on “sugary” drinks. It has also called for e-commerce companies to start collecting taxes on online sales.

The Choice is a Toronto Star series where we take the issues that matter in this election and tell you what your vote will mean.

HJ

With files from Alex Ballingall.

Bruce Campion-Smith

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How do you think the parties have handled affordability issues so far in the campaign?

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