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Tories promise cuts -- except on health care

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MISSISSAUGA, Ont. -- The release of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's election platform Friday proved the old maxim that in an election campaign, everything can change in a day.

In this case, it was the Conservatives' fiscal blueprint that underwent a pair of multibillion-dollar facelifts in the span of just a few minutes -- first with the promise of deep spending cuts and then, moments later, of a major health-care funding commitment.

One thing did remain constant throughout the day: It was never made clear where the political parties would find the money to pay for their election promises.

The Conservatives vowed to erase the deficit a year earlier than scheduled by slashing $11 billion in government spending, but they said little about what they would cut.

Then, minutes after releasing their platform, the Tories promised to temporarily continue the six per cent annual increases in health-care spending currently set to expire in 2014.

On that front, they were merely echoing the Liberals.

The day of duelling health promises began with an open letter released Friday morning by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who promised an extension of the annual six per cent increases.

That significant spending commitment, worth about $2 billion a year, was not included in either of the parties' election platforms, including the one Harper released Friday.

The Conservatives entered the election promising to campaign on the budget they introduced March 22.

Now their platform promises to erase the deficit a year earlier, in 2014-15, while continuing to boost health funding and slashing spending through a comprehensive program review.

"This is the map for the road ahead, not a scrapbook of a journey we have taken," Harper told several hundred supporters at a platform launch event.

In this election, all the parties are pledging fiscal discipline but finding additional money for health care.

The Tory commitment is slightly less definitive. Harper's party says its health pledge, along with the rest of its platform cost projections, only apply to the two-year period after the agreement expires, through 2016.

Harper's health announcement was perhaps the biggest surprise of his platform launch. Most of the measures were announced earlier in the campaign or in the recent federal budget.

They include a $2.5-billion income-splitting program that involves shifting income from a better-paid spouse to a lower-paid spouse to reduce the overall tax the couple pays.

The policy, which would come into effect only once the federal books are balanced, applies to couples with dependent children under 18.

The platform also includes $2.2 billion to compensate Quebec for harmonizing the GST and PST. That money would flow over the next two years -- after a compensation deal is reached with the province.

The 67-page document focuses on five priorities: creating jobs, supporting families, eliminating the deficit, getting tough on crime and investing in the North.

Noteworthy initiatives include a national counter-terrorism strategy and the creation of an office of religious freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Jack Layton released the NDP's defence platform in Esquimalt, B.C., home to Canada's Pacific fleet, making replacement of the navy's aging supply ships the top priority. The NDP leader said all navy ships would be built in Canada, creating thousands of jobs and pouring billions of dollars into the economy.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2011 A7

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