What would Ignatieff do? He’s not saying.

COYNE: Iggy offers no alternatives

What would Ignatieff do? He's not saying.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Generally speaking, political parties have two broad strategies available to them. There’s the safe one: take no positions on anything, avoid specifics, and wait for the other guy to make a mistake. And there’s the risky one: stake out firm ground, tell it like it is, and hope to win credit for your frankness. The first is common, the second rarer, but the Ignatieff Liberals are probably the first to attempt both at the same time.

The Grits sense the Tories are vulnerable on the question of fiscal management, and they are right. The Tories have increased spending by nearly 50 per cent in just five years. They inherited a surplus of $13 billion and turned it into a $56-billion deficit in the last fiscal year. They would take far too long to erase the deficit—the recent economic update was the first even to project a balanced budget, and then only by fiscal 2016—and have identified next to nothing in the way of specific measures to that end.

So the way is open for the Liberals to steal the Tories’ clothes on this issue. It’s a sharp strategy for an opposition party, turning its adversary’s supposed strength to its own advantage. But to make it work, you have to put forward something that actually differs in some way from what your opponents propose.

Where the Tories prefer a go-slow approach to balancing the books, for example, you might urge a faster pace. Where the Tories are reluctant to spell out how they would get there, you tell the public the kind of spending cuts, maybe even tax increases, that will be required. That calls for a certain amount of political courage, admittedly, but only a little: it’s not as if the Tories have set the bar very high. You wouldn’t have to be terribly harsh or specific. But you would have to say something. You couldn’t just say . . . nothing.

Yet that is what the Grits are attempting. And not in a small way: a flotilla of Liberal front-benchers were sent out on the same day this week to attack the Conservatives’ fiscal position, and to establish the Liberals as the party of fiscal seriousness. From Ralph Goodale came the promise of a “higher level of discourse,” a “sober, unfiltered perspective” based on “rigour, respect and reason.” From Scott Brison, a stern critique of Jim Flaherty as the “biggest deficit finance minister in Canadian history,” and of the government as having “outspent every government that came before it.” From Marc Garneau, a skeptical view of government forecasts that show “the financial situation will recover miraculously,” but with “no argument to justify this confidence.” And from all three, a warning that the economic outlook was uncertain, inviting the audience to contrast their own prudence with the Tories’ recklessness.

All right. So what is the Liberal alternative? If the Tories would leave our fiscal position too exposed for too long, how much faster would the Liberals reduce the deficit? Well, whereas the economic update projected a deficit of 1.2 per cent of GDP two years from now, the Liberals promise to cut it all the way to . . . one per cent. To be sure, they also promise to build a larger margin of error into their plans, “so we stay on course even if things don’t happen exactly as forecast.” But what course is that? A deficit that is “declining every year . . . until the budget is balanced”—a date they decline to name. Such a loosely defined course would be almost impossible to miss.

And how would they get us there? What cuts would they make to all that wasteful Conservative spending? Well, “we’ll work with the public service to review all program spending.” And: “there won’t be any new spending, unless we can clearly identify a source of funds.” In other words, there aren’t going to be any spending cuts, or none that the Liberals will tell you about. (To be fair, there is a promise that “our platform commitments will be costed.” Which is to be preferred, I supposed, to spending unlimited amounts.)

For all their fevered rhetoric over the F-35 contract, in particular, the Liberals are not actually promising to reverse it. Nor can they in good conscience cancel the Tories’ costly program to expand the nation’s prisons, having voted for the crime bills that will fill them. It’s possible they would try to take it out of federal transfers to the provinces, but it’s hard to tell: Goodale promises only that “a Liberal government will defend our public, universal health care system,” which could mean anything.

About the only hard promise the Liberals make is to cancel the Tories’ scheduled cuts in corporate tax rates, or as the Liberals prefer, “$6 billion a year in corporate tax cuts we can’t afford right now”—you know, what with the deficit and all. There’s just two things wrong with this. One, cancelling the tax cuts wouldn’t save anywhere near $6 billion, since the Liberals have not committed to wind them back to 2010 levels, but only to freeze them wherever they happen to be when they take power. As of Jan. 1, when the first round of cuts take effect, there will be $1.8 billion less revenue to reclaim, and still less in following years.

And two, the Liberals are not proposing to use the money to cut the deficit, but at least in part to fund new spending programs. “Cutting taxes on borrowed money,” the Liberals primly advise, is the height of folly. But spending borrowed money is apparently the very definition of prudence.

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