The Liberals should pick a side, any side

The party's message is clear. It's just that the Liberal record doesn't support it.

The liberals should pick a side, any side

Ryan Remiorz/CP

The difference between them and the Conservatives, the Liberals would like you to know, is all about “values.” That is, it’s about “priorities.” I mean to say, it’s about “your Canada” versus “Stephen Harper’s Canada.” Indeed, the Liberals have three favourite examples of how the two parties’ values diverge, which they will rhyme off for you at the least provocation. In a phrase, they are: fighter jets, prison cells, and corporate tax cuts.

I refer, respectively, to the proposed purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets at a cost of $9 billion, plus a projected $7 billion in maintenance costs over 25 years; the addition of 2,700 new prison beds, with the construction of several new jails planned for the longer term, at a cost of—well, no one seems to know, exactly; and a three percentage point cut in corporate tax rates, from the current rate of 18 per cent to 15 per cent by 2012, which the Liberals claim would cost $6 billion a year in foregone revenues.

There isn’t any doubt about where the Liberals would like you to think they stand on these. “Instead of spending $16 billion on untendered stealth fighters and…borrowing $6 billion more to give tax breaks to the largest corporations,” the Liberal website proclaims, “Liberals want to address the economic pressures facing Canadian families when it comes to family care, pensions, learning and jobs.”

Unveiling a new French-language campaign, the MP Denis Coderre fumes: “[Harper’s] priorities have nothing to do with us: billions for stealth Fighters and American-style mega-prisons, yet nothing for families.” Addressing partisan crowds on his periodic road trips, Michael Ignatieff often expresses his devotion to building “schools, not prisons.”

Got that? If you don’t like jets, jails or, um, jorporate tax cuts, vote Liberal. Except… that’s not actually the Liberal position on any of these. Or to the extent that it is, it’s at best a recent conversion. The merits of all three policies may be debated. But you have to actually be on the other side to do so.

Take the F-35s. Nobody that I am aware of actually disputes the need to replace the old CF-18s, which are on their great-grandchildren’s last legs by now. The decision to buy a new fleet of jets, as the Tories like to point out, was made by the previous Liberal government. That doesn’t mean the Grits have to like the result, and indeed many have criticized both the choice of the F-35 and the process that delivered it, notably the lack of a competitive tender. But the Liberals are as committed to buying new jets as the Tories.

That’s not what you would glean from the Liberal ads, or their rhetoric. The message in these is not that they would choose a different plane, or use a different process. It’s that they would not buy the jets. To be sure, they never come out and say so, exactly. But the impression is unmistakable.

Or take the Conservatives’ prison expansion plans. Not even the Tories would pretend the new jail cells are needed because of a sudden increase in crime. Rather, it’s to accommodate the many more people who would face imprisonment, for longer times, as a result of the Tory crime bills—bills the Liberals, in the main, supported. And not always as grudgingly as they now like to pretend.

For example, among the measures most likely to expand the prison population is Bill C-25, passed in the last session. Also known as the “truth in sentencing” act, it ended the practice of awarding prisoners extra credit for time served before sentencing. Rising in debate, Liberal MP Keith Martin noted, “the Liberal party believes this is very important legislation in fighting crime and we are therefore supporting the bill.”

Logically, the Liberals have to choose. You can’t support putting more people in jail, and oppose creating the space to put them in. I say, logically.

Last, take the corporate tax cuts. Not only did the Liberals manage to be absent for the budget vote in 2007 that passed the cuts they now oppose, but as late as the last election they were boasting of how they would go even further than these. “We will accelerate and deepen the currently planned corporate tax cuts,” the Liberal platform proclaimed, “reducing the general corporate tax rate by an additional one per cent within four years.”

Well, that was then, Liberals explain. We just can’t afford a $6-billion tax cut at a time when we are running a $56-billion deficit. Except we aren’t running a $56-billion deficit. That was last year. For the current fiscal year, ending next month, the budgeted figure was $45 billion; the actual figure, based on in-year projections, could be closer to $40 billion. By the time the cuts are phased in, it could be half that.

And the cost of the tax cut isn’t likely to be anywhere near $6 billion. The economist Stephen Gordon estimates it at about $3 billion to $4 billion, which would be in line with the $1.2 billion the Liberals pencilled in two years ago as the cost of the extra percentage point they proposed to cut. It might not even be that much. Twenty-odd years ago, when the corporate tax rate was twice as high as it is now, corporate tax revenues came to roughly two per cent of GDP. Today, after wave upon wave of tax cuts, they’ve fallen all the way to… two per cent of GDP.

I understand the Liberals’ need to differentiate themselves from the Tories. But, really: what kind of chumps do they take us for?

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