Small expectations: Why tiny promises rule the federal election

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair waves to the crowd on the upper levels of the atrium as he addresses a student audience during a campaign stop at the University of Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press

To win big in this election, federal parties are thinking small.

Instead of proposing big, transformative ideas, they’re looking at smaller, more targeted initiatives this election, said Cristine de Clercy, co-director of the Leadership and Democracy Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario.

The NDP, for example, has pledged to spend an additional $11.3 billion on its new programs by 2019-20. This includes promises like creating a million child care spaces at $15/day (accounting for $1.9 billion in annual spending by 2018-19) and building 200 new health clinics.

It sounds like a lot of money. But it’s only about 4 per cent of total current government spending. That’s less than half of what is spent on National Defence alone – though more than the government spends on all 47 crown corporations put together.

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To pay for this spending, the NDP is increasing the corporate income tax rate to 17 per cent, cancelling income-splitting for families with young children and reducing TFSA limits to $5,500 a year. It’s also relying on Conservative finance minister Joe Oliver’s projected surpluses.

READ MORE: 3 charts that help explain how the NDP hopes to balance the budget

The Liberals are also planning to spend an additional $11 billion a year (when adding together their promises made as of Sept. 16, 2015). One key difference: The Liberal spending is more concentrated in the early years of the next government’s four-year term, when they plan to run a deficit, unlike the NDP, whose spending is mostly back-loaded.

One of the biggest-ticket items of the Liberals’ plan is also related to child care: $4 billion annually for a Child Care Benefit targeted to low-income families. They also plan to spend an additional $5 billion a year on infrastructure.

The Conservatives’ promises have also been fairly modest, their single biggest promise being $1.5 billion a year for a “permanent” home renovation tax credit, according to the Canadian Press’ promise tracker.

Penny-pinching promises

These price tags are “trivia,” says Scott Clark, a former federal deputy finance minister under Liberal governments and current adjunct research professor of economics at the University of Ottawa.

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“There’s nothing in any of the platforms that leap out at you as being a major transformative platform,” he said.

“I think all three leaders are still quite afraid politically of being criticized as big spenders, big taxers, big government.”

Clark thinks this is a legacy of a decade of Conservative governance.

“Stephen Harper kind of framed over time the budget debate. Because he said we’re going to balance the budget: small government, balanced budget, low taxes, that’s good. I think generally over time, most Canadian voters kind of bought into that.”

That’s why Mulcair promised to keep the budget balanced, he said.

“What he wants to do is say, I can balance a budget just as well as Stephen Harper can. I am credible, I won’t run up big deficits, increase the debt – criticisms that have perhaps been levied against the NDP in the past.”

Mulcair borrowed assumptions from the 2015 budget, he said, including ones that have since been criticized by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

“I think we now know where Joe Oliver is. He’s advising Mulcair,” joked Clark.

Bespoke platforms

De Clercy has a different theory.

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“Canadian voters tend to vote people out rather than vote them in,” she said.

And if you’re an opposition party convinced that most voters want change, you don’t need much to convince people to choose you instead, she said.

“On the idea of promoting a starkly different radical vision, the idea is the parties won’t pursue this if they’re simply waiting for voters to come to them because voters are perceived to be tired of the incumbent.”

At the same time, the rise of voter databases has changed how parties focus their policies, she said.

“The old rule used to be you had to have a strong economic plank and a strong social policy offering or argument to campaign on. You needed one of each and these were supposed to be different enough that it would distinguish you from the different parties.”

Now, it’s about figuring out which specific demographics you need to win, and woo them with targeted promises.

“All of the new strategy is mainly driven by things like the voter contact databases that the parties have refined to an amazing level of detail and the deep science of opinion polling research. So now the parties don’t think of having single big issues, they think about having 20 much smaller issues targeted to specific demographics that they’re trying to collect votes from.”

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This explains why we see Harper promising to help the PEI lobster industry and Trudeau promising a tax credit for teachers.

“They very carefully figure out what sorts of messages and policies would appeal to that group to solidify their base and maybe bring in a few more people,” de Clercy said.

Game of Risk-aversion

One other explanation for this campaign’s small-scale platforms could be the simplest: Big changes can be scary.

“People generally, in all societies, are quite reluctant to embrace change,” de Clercy said.

Stephane Dion tried a big idea when he led the Liberals in 2008, she said, and his “Green Shift” environmental policy was a disaster.

“It was quite on the cutting edge of environmental policy for that period, and he was excoriated for it.”

And while you may like to think you’re adventurous, most voters aren’t, said Stanley Winer, Canada Research Chair professor in public policy at Carleton University.

“People, and by people I mean the voters in democratic countries, don’t like to be jerked around by large changes. Who does? It’s upsetting. You make plans, then they’re all upset. People get very annoyed by that and so politicians don’t do it.”

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So smart governments make big changes with a series of baby steps.

“You do get changes, but these big changes tend to either occur as a result of persistent but small changes year over year, over time, because underlying economic conditions change,” said Winer.

There’s always the hint of a hidden agenda, however.

“A party in government can do pretty much whatever it pleases within the parameters of the Constitution,” de Clercy said.

Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, for example, brought in the GST – not part of his election campaign.

“What parties say on the campaign trail and what they do once they’re in office are two different things.”

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