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the party platforms and the yukon

increasingly quaint institution, a throwback to a bygone age when (at least some) voters actually took the time to read what a party had…

 increasingly quaint institution, a throwback to a bygone age when (at least some) voters actually took the time to read what a party had planned for the country.

The internet was supposed to make information flow more widely and deeply, but instead we seem to be using it to rewatch Saturday Night Live skits about Sarah Palin or visit the Conservative Party’s entertaining “Policy Slot Machine” applet (sample “Liberal” policy produced when you pull the lever: “Bring the Taliban to Canada.”)

Talking to some politicians and journalists, one also suspects they haven’t read the platforms either.

Everyone is too busy.

The Conservative Party seems to have understood this trend, waiting until just a week before the election to release its platform. Instead, it made a series of announcements designed for the daily news cycle. They have also invested heavily in negative print, radio and television ads caricaturing the Liberal platform.

People may not have read the platforms, but they have read the glossy photo sent by the Conservative candidate to every Yukon household showing a diminutive Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion in front of a giant homeheating fuel tank with a bold caption claiming Dion “THINKS HEATING OIL PRICES ARE TOO LOW.”

Despite all this, the platforms do matter. And sometimes they decide elections.

In the 1983 British election, for example, one observer described the Labour Party’s platform as the “longest suicide note in history.” Labour lost by almost 200 seats.

So this column will compare and contrast what the four national parties have to say about economic policy, especially in areas affecting the Yukon.

We’ll do it in around 1,000 words; then you can go back to watching Tina Fey impersonate Governor Palin on YouTube.

Taxes. There is a clear difference here between the Liberals and Greens, who propose a carbon tax to shift the tax burden to pollution from income and profits, and the Conservatives and NDP.

The Conservatives and NDP argue that carbon taxes will raise prices for average Canadians. The local Conservative candidate has called them “ridiculous.” This populist stance is disingenuous, since both parties themselves are in favour of “cap and trade” schemes which will also drive up the cost of anything produced with energy; which is everything.

The Conservatives and NDP would have voters think that “big corporations” will pay, while in reality most of the added cost will be passed on to consumers in the end anyway. In the long run, the Conservatives and NDP may have done the country a disservice by demonizing carbon taxes, which have been a big part of anti-global warming policy in countries like Denmark, Netherlands and Italy. The last Conservative government in Britain brought in the Fuel Price Escalator tax, a carbon tax in everything but name.

The key point for Yukoners is that all the parties recommend increasing the price of carbon somehow.

Stéphane Dion’s plan is the only one that envisages direct offsets to Yukoners. And these are significant.

Under his plan, a Yukon family earning $50,000 with two children would receive over $1,500 in various tax breaks. They would have to use the equivalent of more than 22,500 litres of home heating fuel per year to be worse off.

The parties also have a range of policies on taxes, each with long lists of minor tax breaks.

The NDP is in favour of higher taxes for companies with more than $400,000 in revenue, with lower taxes for smaller ones.

The Conservatives and Liberals are in favour of lower business taxes in general. Many, but not all, economists would argue in favour of lower business taxes to encourage investment and economic activity. Especially in an age where investment can quickly move across borders.

The Conservatives have also announced a range of small but carefully targeted programs, including making the Universal Childcare Benefit tax-free for single parents. The Green Party platform is vague on business taxes, but refers to using carbon tax revenue to reduce business taxes in some areas.

The Greens would also raise the GST one point to six per cent to fund various worthy initiatives.

Economic crisis. The credit crunch has now spread to Europe and emerging markets and is rippling through new sectors of the North American economy.

The Canadian economy so far has been relatively lightly affected, but bad news on US growth, commodity prices and the housing market is likely to hit Canada hard sooner or later. The problem is that there is little the Canadian government can do, other than hope that Canadian banks are as strong as we think and that our low-debt, low-inflation and flexible exchange rate stance weathers the crisis well.

Although they wouldn’t admit it, the party leaders so far have talked about the need to do something, but have not made any significant proposals to change the fundamentals of Canadian macro-economic policy.

And as for intellectual leadership on formulating a global response to the crisis, our leaders have not offered any suggestions and the world (at least judging from people like the World Bank president who have called for greater involvement of Brazil, India and China) is not asking Canada for any.

Corporate subsidies. Another area of widespread agreement is on “targeted corporate support,” or “corporate welfare” as some like to call it.

All the parties have various handouts to their favourite industries, ranging from the Conservatives promising money to Quebec “sea-farmers” and aerospace companies to the Liberal Advanced Manufacturing Prosperity Fund to the NDP’s Green Collar Jobs Fund to the Green Party’s Green Venture Capital Fund. All the parties, except the Greens, appear in favour of handouts to car manufacturers in vote-rich Ontario and Quebec.

For the Yukon, the Conservatives promise a Northern economic development agency, but don’t mention how much (if any) additional money it would receive. ‘

The NDP platform doesn’t mention the Yukon, but it also promises a Northern agency.

The Liberals promise to restore cuts to regional economic development funding, and, specifically, to back the Yukon Cold Climate Innovation Cluster.

The Green platform doesn’t mention the Yukon or northern economy.

Productivity. The parties all position themselves as making tough, long-term choices to build our economy.

However, the theme of productivity is notably absent throughout the debate.

This is frustrating for economists, since ultimately it is the economic output per person – productivity – that makes us wealthier and generates the tax money to pay for our social programs.

The Greens don’t mention the word in their platform.

The economy and tax sections of the Conservative website doesn’t use the word either.

The Liberals and NDP mention productivity once only each.

This gap is strange, since the OECD and various academic economists have been pointing out big opportunities to improve Canada’s productivity.

The parties do support some elements of a productivity agenda, such as improved education and training or streamlined credential recognition for trained immigrants.

But they are relatively silent on more controversial policy options, such as reductions of trade barriers, allowing foreign takeovers in currently protected sectors like telecommunications, banking and media, or introducing more competition into government-dominated sectors like health and education.

Countries like Sweden, Britain and New Zealand have all experimented positively in these areas, so it is disappointing that our leaders aren’t a bit bolder here.

Finally, one strange non event of the campaign has been the announcement of economic talks with the European Union, with the aim of boosting productivity on both sides of the Atlantic through freer trade and investment.

There will be a summit three days after the election involving the president of France, the president of the European Commission and whoever our prime minister is that day.

The Europeans have already said that a key objective is open access for European companies to government projects in Canada.

The opponents of the TILMA accord, which might have seen Alberta contractors bidding equally on Yukon government projects, have been remarkably silent about this, despite the Yukon premier’s support for the European negotiations at the July Council of the Federation meeting.

In conclusion, the parties offer a wide range of economic policies, both good and bad as well as popular and unpopular.

The biggest point for Yukoners is probably the choice between the Liberal handouts to Yukoners, financed by carbon taxpayers in Southern Canada, or the Conservative approach of maintaining the current tax system with a few wallet-friendly tweaks here and there.