By Kelsey Johnson
OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canadians have a message for politicians appearing on their front stoops ahead of Canada’s upcoming national election in October: life is getting more expensive.
The issue of affordability could shape the Oct. 21 election, according to pollsters, and both Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and the rival Conservatives plan to make easing household expenses a priority, party sources say.
While so-called pocketbook issues are a constant feature of elections everywhere, the subject is especially relevant in Canada’s upcoming contest.
Canadian household debt is at record levels, while the savings rate has fallen to nearly its lowest level in 14 years. A recent Abacus Data poll found 56% of Canadians put cost-of-living as one of their top five issues heading into the vote.
Household debt is rising against the backdrop of a solid economy, with unemployment hovering near a record low reached earlier this year, while wage growth is picking up and inflation is low.
“Affordability for middle-class families is a key issue,” Jean-Yves Duclos, Trudeau’s social development minister, said in a recent interview.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Trudeau, who took office in 2015, are in a statistical tie nationally, polls show, but the Liberals are outpacing the Conservatives in Quebec and Ontario, Canada’s most populous provinces with the most seats in parliament.
The official campaign, which typically occurs every four years, is expected to kick off by mid-September, with 338 seats up for grabs in the House of Commons.
The Conservative Party sources have said promises to make life more affordable will be a cornerstone in their campaign, especially in the key battlegrounds around Toronto, in the Atlantic provinces, and in rural Quebec.
“Our candidates … are hearing from people that they’re working very hard but that the cost of living is getting out of control,” Scheer said this week as he pledged to make maternity benefits tax-free if elected.
“All of the major parties are going to be obsessed about carving out territory around affordability,” said Tim Powers, vice-chairman of political strategy firm Summa Strategies.
“There’s food, but there’s no money to buy it,” Florence Oguntade, in her 50s and a mother of three, said at a bus stop in Ottawa. A Liberal supporter, she said she wants the party to address the rising costs of food and cellphones if it wins.
Fresh vegetable prices have posted double-digit gains for 10 consecutive months, according to Statistics Canada.
Oguntade said cellphone bills, which are among the highest in the world, were costing her “thousands of dollars”. She said she is using money to pay for her kids’ phones that should be spent on food.
Cellphone costs are likely to be addressed by both the Liberals and the Conservatives, the party sources said.
The left-wing New Democrat Party (NDP), which released its campaign platform in June, has already pledged measures that include offsetting mobile phone and Wi-Fi costs, creating a universal pharmacare program, and an additional C$1 billion ($752.11 million) in childcare funding by 2020.
The Liberal platform may include at least partial compensation for the costs of medicines, sources have said. Canada is the only country in the world with a universal health system that does not include substantial coverage for prescription drugs.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have promised to cancel the Liberal government’s carbon pricing scheme to help lower food and gasoline prices.
“People are living in this state of uncertainty … where one unexpected thing pushes you over the edge,” said Marie Della Mattia, the NDP’s national campaign co-chair.
($1 = 1.3296 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa; Editing by Steve Scherer and Matthew Lewis)