ELECTION FOCUS ?06 Politicians bearing election gifts paid for with our own money

Canada won?t be able to boast a federal surplus for much longer, if the election promises unveiled since the start of the campaign are ever enacted. Already, tax cuts and new spending pledged by the party leaders ? notably Stephen Harper ? would wipe out most of Ottawa?s current $8 billion a year surplus.

With the long campaign barely more than a third complete this week, the Conservative leader is keeping up his flurry of targeted tax cuts and promised new benefits. The strategy is forcing the Liberals to respond with expensive promises of their own.

The NDP, for their part, promised a $1 billion a year investment on home care for seniors. As well, Layton joined the child care wars with the NDP?s own formula to put more money into creating not-for-profit daycare spaces– $7 billion over five years.

Late last week, Stephen Harper added a $2.2 billion tax break over five years for seniors ? no taxes on the first $2,000 of annual interest income ? and committed $50 million a year to support the national cancer strategy. Earlier, there was his $4.2 billion promised cut in the GST, a pledge of $1,200 a year to parents for each pre-school child, a reduction in small business tax, and more money for training apprentices.

As well, Harper has promised a $500 per child tax credit to cover the cost of enrolling kids in sports programs like hockey or soccer or, in fact, even ballet. The armed forces also got a promise of a $1.8 billion boost in spending.

Only the child care tax break brought a direct Liberal response. Prime Minister Martin promptly rolled out a five-year extension to the current federal-provincial child care plan, at a cost of $6 billion. Then, he shared a platform with ex-President Clinton at the climate conference in Montreal, and slipped into Toronto to proclaim a ban on all handguns.

Martin, who has taken credit for improving relations with the United States, went in for some Bush bashing at the Montreal meeting over climate change, and ended up getting a bit of a bashing himself. The U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkiins, retorted that it might be ?smart election-year politics to criticize your friend and No. 1 trading partner constantly ? but the United States should not be on your ballot.? He was obviously speaking at the behest of the President.

The flurry of campaign promises is yet again a reminder ? especially with Christmas approaching ? that they are financed with our own money. If you were to offer your neighbour $10 to vote for your party, you?d be guilty of a criminal act. But when a politician makes a collective offer of a billion dollars in seeking the votes of seniors, for example, that?s an exercise in electoral democracy

Perhaps this is all to the good. Canadians who feel they?re over-taxed, and that?s probably most of us, would be relieved to see taxes cut to the point where Ottawa no longer runs a big surplus.

As in all campaigns, the devil is in the details. Cut too much, as Ontario and B.C. did, and you end up doing serious harm to public services. Canadians want a healthy balance.

This campaign has been marked by an aggressive, well-orchestrated Conservative push to convince Canadians there?s more reason than the sponsorship scandal to vote for a change in government. The new policies put forth by Stephen Harper may be slowly catching on. As I write this, the highly-respected CPAC-SES poll has the Liberals at 42% and the Conservatives at 37% outside Quebec, well within the margin of error.

The big news may be the crumbling of NDP support, which has dropped ten points outside Quebec to 15%. Little wonder, with celebrity unionist Buzz Hargrove pitching NDPers to vote Liberals in all but the safest NDP ridings.

Just the same, credit the NDP with the cleverest advertising of the campaign, using humour and simplicity to attack the Liberals. Keyed to Christmas, it shows the Liberals delivering a lump of coal to Canadians as their present, and calls on voters to boot the government, showing a large rubber boot dropping into the picture. Inexpensive and imaginative, it made the NDP?s point nicely.

The big events this week are the English and French debates Thursday and Friday nights, out of Vancouver. Gilles Duceppe, with candidates only in Quebec, will get to speak to the country while Jim Harris, Green party leader who is running candidates in all 308 seats, is barred at the door.

Outrage of the Week: Liberal communications top dog Scott Reid?s slam against Canadians, saying they?d blow the promised Conservative day care allowance on ?beer and popcorn.? Sure, some would but that?s no reason to impugn the good sense of the rest of us. Wisely, Paul Martin disowned Reid?s remark and the Liberal flack made a quick apology, but it raises the question of how long Martin can afford to keep such a ham-fisted aide in his inner circle. It?s not the first time Reid has gotten himself and his boss in hot water.

Ray Argyle is the author of Turning Points: the Campaigns that Changed Canada. He can be reached at author@turningpoints.info.