The saddest spectacle in Canadian politics is the astroturf protest.
It works like this: Campaign staff get wind of a rival leader's campaign event, so they dispatch a team of flying monkeys to go mess with it. Those flying monkeys are usually decked out with crudely drawn signs, and heads full of catchy slogans.
The Conservatives did it to Justin Trudeau in 2013, when a mob of fresh-faced interns from the prime minister's office crashed the Liberal leader's policy announcement, waving around slogans scrawled on poster board.
And, recently, the Liberals did it to Thomas Mulcair. The NDP leader was holding an event in Toronto when a gaggle of sign-wielding maniacs cruised up to the nondescript office building where the bearded wonder was planning to give a stump speech, chanting things like "Tell the truth!" and brandishing slogans like "Budget cuts are: INEVITABLE."
INEVITABLE was in bright orange font.
"Are you staffers?" I asked.
"We're young Liberals. We are here because we want to be. We are here to oppose Thomas Mulcair's cuts," one told me. They all repeated it. It was like their mantra. I later saw them chanting it as one inquisitive fire chief walked by and asked them what their purpose was. Each took turns repeating their script.
The astroturf protest is a time-honoured tradition in Canadian politics. It's partisan monkey business. Political skullduggery. Campaign tomfuckery.
But seeing Liberals protest the NDP's austerity plan is like watching the league of women voters picket a convent. It just doesn't make any damn sense.
It's not say they're out-and-out wrong, though.
Running a typical third-party campaign, the Liberal Party is trying to flank to the left of the NDP by arguing for big, broad-based governing that would lavish money onto Canada's highways and bridges, cut cheques to its families and seniors, and commit cash for the country's under-resourced First Nations.
They're contrasting themselves with the penny-pinching small-thinkers in the NDP.
To give themselves maneuvering room to dig at the NDP leader, Trudeau has made the confounding commitment to spend into deficit right up until 2019,adding as much as $20 billion to the federal debt (that, for reference, would increase the federal debt by about 1.6 percent, which would still keep our total net debt-to-GDP ratio below that of Germany, and the lowest in the G7.)
Mulcair, meanwhile, has pledged to balance the budget.
The squabble is a fight devised entirely by Stephen Harper. And he's winning.
Despite the hokey fake protest, the Liberals are making a fair point against their opposition rivals: the NDP has, over the last several years, promised a lot of cash that they've not quite accounted for.
The NDP has committed to: repairing the country's infrastructure; upping health transfers to the provinces; returning the retirement age to 65; lowering small business taxes; creating education transfers in order to lower tuition fees; creating a million $15-a-day childcare spaces; increasing development aid; undoing cuts to the CBC; investing heavily in green energy technology; reinstating door-to-door mail delivery; doubling the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors; expanding infrastructure transfers to the cities; investing in public transport; and, well, a lot of other stuff.
All of those things cost a lot of money. And, at the moment, the NDP have only really explained how they'll pay for part of it. They said they'd hike the corporate tax rate, but don't know by how much. They'll close CEO tax loopholes, but can't say how much money that'd take in. They'll end some oil subsidies, but likely aren't accounting for the ensuing job losses that'll result. They'll abolish the senate, but can't really say when that will happen.
So the NDP faces a problem: What are they actually going to do? Most of that list of promises have evaporated in recent months.
Yesterday, we asked the NDP leader what in his platform would benefit wage workers, contract workers, students, and so on.
Mulcair cited NDP legislation that would afford more protections for interns and contract workers, and highlighted his plan to hike the minimum wage for the 80,000-or-so workers in the federal sector to $15 an hour.
In other words: expect the NDP platform to be sparse. Despite years of big-thinking national-minded programs, the modern party is more interested with small-scale tinkering.
The Liberals, on the flip side, have committed to a huge raft of infrastructure spending, vowing to give the Canadian economy a shot in the arm by paying to renovate Canada's infrastructure in the hope that things stop falling off Montreal bridges and onto people.
And, he says, deficit be damned!
Never mind that interest payments on our public debt is expected to cost us something like $18 billion over the next five years (not including the additional $20 billion, or more, Trudeau intends to add to the debt).
But can't we have a campaign where we don't have to choose between repairing our roads and balancing the budget? Can't we do both?
And while we're at it, neither leader is currently talking about wrestling down rising tuition fees or tackling the mountain of student debt. Neither leader is going near the idea of expanding welfare or Employment Insurance. Neither leader is talking facilitating first-time home-buying. (Even Stephen Harper is talking about that.) Neither leader is talking about culture spending, aside from slapping a band-aid over the CBC.
Truth is: no matter which of the three leaders becomes prime minister, it will likely have very little impact on your life.
Here we reach the problem: Stephen Harper has trapped his predecessor into continuing his agenda.
If you've got kids, or a bunch of disposable income, you probably really like that agenda. If you have neither, it's probably not for you.
Harper's government promised to mail you cash for every baby you can create, then announced that it would be letting you squirrel away up to $10,000, tax free, in cash and stocks. Then there's income splitting for families and seniors, meaning they can reduce their tax burden by a pretty significant yearly amount. Add onto that the decision to increase defence spending, and you've suddenly got very little room to spend anything on anything.
Neither Mulcair nor Trudeau is talking about ending the procreation awards (that mail out something like $4.5 billion in cheques to parents annually) even though there's not a lot of evidence that mailing micro-payments to families is actually doing anything productive. Trudeau even wants to expand it, albeit re-aiming it at low-income families.
Then there's the wasteland of social engineering tax credits that have been haphazardly stacked in our tax code for decades. Maybe if we had a leader crazy enough to axe that thicket of absurd tax breaks—yeah, go ahead, show me how a $150 child fitness tax credit is really going to convince parents to put their kids in hockey—we'd have some extra cash left to, I dunno, send people to Mars, or whatever it is we feel like doing.
This is such a narrowly-fought election campaign, one that seems so intent on finding ways to buy the votes of minivan-driving families, that watching Liberal fake protesters wave their anti-austerity signs at the budget-balancing Dippers really felt like a hallucination. It felt like, maybe, federal elections are really just high school popularity contests that just cost a lot more.
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