Liberals line up as kinder, gentler party

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Sun Media, Friday, October 1, 2010

Michael Ignatieff’s promise of $1 billion a year for family homecare is part of an emerging Liberal narrative of differentiation from the Conservatives.

While the Conservatives spend billions on planes and prisons, the Liberals are talking about daycare and homecare. Call it cradle to grave, the new welfare state.

Or, as Iggy put it in his homecare announcement: “Stephen Harper and the Conservatives choose tax breaks for corporations. We choose to help Canadian families.”

More differentiation.

When fully implemented, $6 billion of corporate tax cuts will give Canada the lowest rates in the G7, creating investment and jobs, definitely helping Canadian families. And while Ignatieff says he would halt the corporate tax cuts, he doesn’t say whether he would rescind them.

Where’s the $1 billion a year for homecare going to come from? He doesn’t say, though he does say where it’s going, in two parts. First, $250 million would go to a Family Care Employment insurance leave benefit, similar to parental leave under EI, and would benefit 30,000 homecare providers without forcing them to quit their jobs. Another $750 million, or up to $1,350 tax free per person, would go to 600,000 low- and middle-income Canadians who don’t pay into EI and don’t qualify for it.

Rather inconveniently, homecare is part of healthcare, a provincial jurisdiction. But then, so is daycare, for which Iggy has promised “early learning and childcare for every Canadian family that wants it.” And so is higher education, though the Liberal leader vows “if you get the grades, you get to go” to university.

The Liberals, egged on by the NDP, are always pushing the envelope on the constitutional division of powers. They are forever talking about national strategies and programs in provincial jurisdiction, and are rarely troubled in the rhetorical phase of politics by constitutional niceties.

And then in the implementation phase, they end up writing cheques to the provinces, as Paul Martin did on daycare and cities. Similarly, the 2004 health care accord was a $41 billion transfer payment to the provinces over 10 years.

It’s no mystery — these are provincial jurisdictions under the division of powers. You can look it up under Section 92 of the Constitution Act.

Ignatieff skirts this issue by saying he would fund homecare family leave through EI. As for the family care tax benefit, he says it’s modelled on the child tax benefit. In this respect, he is on solid constitutional footing—the feds can tinker with EI, and tax breaks, however they like. Miraculously, he says “a Liberal government will not increase EI premiums” to fund homecare leave.

So where will the money come from?

Well, from the $16 billion the Conservatives are budgeting for buying and servicing the F-35 jet fighter, a deal Iggy says he’d put on hold. Nor would he build the new prisons the Conservatives have announced. As he put it at the outset of his summer bus tour in July: Liberals build schools, while Conservatives build prisons.

Which, again, is a constitutionally problematic theme, but you get the idea of where he is going with his differential narrative. He is positioning the Liberals as the kinder, gentler party. It marks a swing to the left, squeezing the NDP on that side. Very clever.

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