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The election choice for working families

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The debates are over, the platforms are released and there is really nothing left to know about the choices in the federal election. The choice is Harper, or the rest of us.

The choice is between a narrow economic and social appeal to middle and high-income earners, drenched in self-interest and individualism, and a community-based, social vision of the country addressed to middle and lower-income Canadians.

The choice may be stark, but the political strategies are in large part aimed at the same strata of working families, often including union members. Both sides on this social divide believe they can connect and identify with the self interest of these mainly working-class families in urban, and semi-urban communities.

The Conservative taxes, guns and crime program is a straightforward pitch to higher income workers, professionals and social conservatives. The self-interest message could not be plainer: no matter how large the deficit or need for social programs, there will be no tax increases for you. To the contrary, there are a series of boutique tax credits for lifestyle costs like piano lessons and health clubs -- even though these measures and highly inequitable income splitting on income taxes are promised only when the budget is balanced. But if you have $10,000 to put into a special account next year, you can earn $350 or so, tax free. This and all the deficit cutting will be paid for by program cuts in a broad range of services and federal programs.

The choice against Harper's Canada is a more social vision of the country, with an emphasis on education, health care and pension improvements. In this vision, if you owe $10,000 on your credit card, the NDP plan will save you $1,400 per year in credit card interest. The NDP says, let's also give $1,500 per year in tax credits for elder care, increase the child tax credit and education tax credits and raise EI rates and eligibility.

The Liberal plan will give post secondary students up to $1,500 per year in a RESP account, and it is offering a six month EI benefit and tax benefit for elder care. According to the Liberals, 65% of caregivers for seniors have annual incomes of less than $45,000.

Both the NDP and Liberals will increase social spending to lift low-income seniors out of poverty, and each promise to improve the Canada Pension Plan.

This is a very different economic appeal, but not necessarily aimed at altogether different voters. Indeed many of the same working families that the Conservatives expect will vote for tax breaks are also saddled with high credit card debt, trying to finance post secondary education and elder care and worrying about retirement security.

These competing visions are dramatically different, but all are constrained beneath a ceiling of mainstream consensus that won't fundamentally change the country you know. The major exception that I have found in my policy scan is the NDP/labour proposal to double CPP benefits. A qualitative expansion in public pensions would be the first large significant expansion of our social sphere since Medicare was introduced 40 years ago.

The Liberal Red Book is especially disappointing in its details and scope. It is full of vagaries and half-hearted measures, and falls short of the NDP program on clarity and purpose on almost every issue. On CPP it suggests only that CPP would be "gradually increased over time" and it makes those improvements secondary to a voluntary supplement for those who can afford to set aside 6% of their income. On child care it proposes limited funding that does not even pretend to add up to the national child care program the Liberals infamously promised and failed to deliver.

On Canadian sovereignty, the Liberal plan dodges entirely Canadian ownership in telecom and media and instead proposes something called "global network agreements" that would combine trade and cultural measures with countries like India and China. It is not clear what they have in mind but my alarm bells are ringing loudly.

On some other issues both the NDP and Liberal platforms disappoint. For example, neither propose a national pharmacare program that would be part of Medicare.

On environment, both the Liberals and the NDP project clear climate change targets only for 2050, although the NDP would set "interim targets." Both propose a cap and trade system rather than direct regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The proposal is integral to the NDP's financing of its larger program, commencing immediately. But neither have provided any sense of how this very complicated and often highly controversial system would actually work.

But lets not get bogged down in details. The campaign of mostly small ideas was designed long before the platforms were printed and the debates convened. Ideas that could address fundamental inequalities, the power of the global financial elite or the urgency of environmental crisis are apparently still before their time in our political culture.

But the choice we must make is no less compelling or important. The Conservative plan to beggar thy neighbour by passing out tax credits to a few while cutting services to many will increase inequality and diminish the quality of life for millions.

Millions understand this already, almost instinctively. The outcome will be determined by how millions of other mostly working class voters perceive their self-interest -- as isolated individuals and families, or as part of healthy, caring communities.

We have heard the debates and seen the platforms. Now is time to define the choice.

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