ELECTION FOCUS O6

As the candidates started going door to door this week, tax breaks and benefits for families moved to the front burner of the federal election stove, replacing the sponsorship scandal as the main focus of the campaign.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper grabbed the initiative last week with his dramatic pledge to cut the GST by one percentage point right away, and by two points, to 5 per cent, within five years.

This week, another salvo of Tory shells hit the campaign trenches. Up first was a new $1200 per year child care tax credit that Harper unveiled in Halifax. He promised another $250 million in tax credits to help spur the opening of 125,000 new daycare spaces over five years.

?I believe all taxes are bad,? Harper declared, reminding voters he is a trained economist. ?The immediate effect of cutting the GST will be put to put $4.5 billion back in the pockets of ordinary Canadians.?

In Conservative TV ads unveiled this week, Harper tells an interviewer that Liberals have ?been over-taxing Canadians for 12 long years.?

The Liberals seemed content to let Harper win the headlines in the early stages of this long campaign. The low-key politicking of Prime Minister Paul Martin doesn?t appear to have hurt the Liberals yet, especially in Ontario. There, they?ve managed to increase their lead in the polls, while continuing to top the national polls, 35 per cent to 30 per cent for the Conservatives in one survey, 33-to-31 in another.

These figures, however, may be camouflaging a high level of voter indecision. A national online poll had nearly half of respondents saying they haven?t decided who they?ll vote for.

The Conservative strategy appears to be to get their message out early and then to stay on message, harping away on the party?s policy planks. They hope this will bring Canadians around to supporting them by voting day, January 23.

Harper?s challenge will be to stay on message, and not allow his party to become distracted by MPs speaking out on their own controversial views, as happened in the last election.

On taxation, Prime Minister Martin finds himself in the embarrassing position of defending the GST ? a tax the Liberals had promised to get rid of under Jean Chretien. He?s promised more income tax reductions to follow on the $30 billion in cuts announced in the economic update issued just before the election call.

Even with the cuts, Ottawa expects an $8 billion a year surplus every year. Harper?s GST pledge would take up half of that, leaving an equal amount for other reductions without cutting into social spending.

Conservative finance critic Monte Solberg has indicated his party will be making more moves on the taxation front. They?re likely to match or even upstage the Liberals on any promises to cut income taxes.

Only the New Democrats are holding out against tax reductions. Bloc Quebecois leader Gille Duceppe agreed Canadians should pay less GST, but called for exemptions for children?s clothing rather than a general reduction.

The NDP?s Jack Layton, speaking at a campaign stop in Saskatchewan, said ?Deep tax cuts right now are not what Canadians are looking for.? He?d use the surplus to better fund medicare, low cost housing, university education, and aid to the cities.

Outrage of the week: The blatant unfairness of the Leaders? debates, where Gilles Duceppe will get equal time in two English-language set-tos despite the fact he has no candidates outside Quebec, while Green Party leader Jim Harris is denied a chance. This despite the Green party having run candidates in all 308 ridings in the last election, winning four million votes. The leaders, minus Harris, will face off Dec. 15 in Vancouver in French and in English the next night. A second set will go in the East Jan. 9 and 10. It?s time to take the debates out of the hands of the TV networks and turn them over to a civic organization like the the Canadian Club. Then you could have more of them, devoted to different issues and maybe even one-on-ones, with all party leaders getting a chance to air their stuff.

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