Nearly 50 per cent of Canadians are prepared to vote for the party with the best policies. At least that is what people respond when asked what motivates their election choice in nightly polling done by Nik Nanos for CTV News/Globe and Mail. Conventional wisdom suggest that the party leader and the party itself matter most but it would be nice to think what a party promises to do once elected matters to half the population.

What party platforms do tell us is what segments of the population the party is targeting as potential sources of support. Looking at the Liberal platform launched live Sunday morning is especially revealing in this regard. Seniors, students, families with children or providing homecare, and homeowners with heating bills are all singled out for special treatment.

The webcast featured five women from across Canada introducing each priority family policy, another indicator of the target audience. Liberal leader Ignatieff remarked that the Conservatives may have attacked and weakened women’s rights, but they have not taken away their right to vote.

The Liberal program is not very ambitious. Compared with projected Conservative spending of several billion for prisons, and about $10 billion yearly because the tough-on-crime law means Canada will lock more people up for longer periods, Liberals promise only $8.2 billion in new spending. This is mostly to be financed by restoring the corporate tax rate to 18 per cent. You have to wonder how many childcare spaces can be created for less than $500 billion. Like the Conservatives the Liberals promise no tax increases for Canadians. However, the Liberals do want to water down a tax dodge that allows corporate stock options preferable tax treatment. Reducing these privileges would yield $300 million in additional revenue, drawn from corporate executive suites.

What is most striking about the Liberal promises are how close they are in spirit to what Jack Layton called for to be included in the Spring budget.

On substance the NDP goes further. Layton was more explicit on health care — a family doctor for every Canadian family. The NDP was far more outspoken on the need to improve the Canada Pension Plan than the Liberals are in their election platform. Indeed, until he backed down, Conservative Finance Minister Flaherty was willing to go further for seniors — double CPP benefits going forward — than the Liberals are willing to promise. The Liberal focus on home heating costs, and retrofit assistance for home owners is a straight steal from Jack Layton.

The political purpose of the Liberal platform is to stop and reverse the growth of the important Layton-Liberal vote in Ontario, which saw the NDP become the favoured party in Windsor, Hamilton, Sudbury, Northern Ontario, and an important presence in downtown Toronto. The Liberals want back in the game in B.C., where many places feature straight Conservative versus NDP match-ups.

With considerable assistance from the media, the Liberals are trying to turn a five-party election into a two leader contest. The strategy was welcomed by Stephen Harper, who challenged Ignatieff to a one on one debate, before backing down. And Harper got what he wanted: media bites contrasting himself against Ignatieff as the election choice. The Toronto Star loved the idea, and even Rick Mercer was enlisted in the process.

The reality is that the Liberal platform is very much that of a coalition government with NDP participation, and supported by the Green Party. The Liberals want to contrast themselves with the Conservatives who they resemble in so many ways, notably in governing like Conservatives from the Martin budget of 1995 until his defeat ten years later.

In a parliamentary regime, the opposition parties supply the ideas. When they were in government under Jean Chrétien, the Liberals took their government down-sizing ideas from the Reform Conservatives. Now, in opposition, the Liberals are looking to choke off the growth of the NDP by adopting its policy ideas.

The NDP answer to Ignatieff was to show up at his launch with a list of past Liberal broken promises, including ones from 1993 on re-negotiating NAFTA, scrapping the GST, and providing childcare spaces. As well, the NDP set out to fill out the gaps in the Liberal program on health care and the environment.

Since the era of the American and French revolutions, we know that ideas matter in politics. Democracy is about debate and discussion, creating a climate of opinion. A furious debate about who has the best vision of what Canadians are looking for in their government would be a most welcome description for election 2011. It might even endanger the existence of the Conservative government that does not believe in government, and disrespects democracy.

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of