All parties employ specialists in the art of image-making, and all engage in the politics of spectacle to differing degrees. But in this campaign, it is without a doubt the Liberals who have been the most hyper-savvy — and most cynical — in exploiting many voters’ lack of discernment between a made-for-TV campaign and the lack of substance it can hide.

Behind the sugary facade

In the media echo chamber, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s most substantive claim to the mantle of “change” in this election is his rejection of the balanced budget orthodoxy that has been used by neoliberal politicians as the premise for slashing social programs. It’s a shrewd target for Liberal strategists.

It’s akin to striking a coup in the bumper sticker wars.

Dig deeper, however, and we find it has been the victory of austerity politicians to successfully confuse the two: the real source of austerity policies is less the smokescreen of balanced budgets than the emptying of the public purse by decades of massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

The corporate media have, of course, been complicit in this confusion. Now, all too happy to confirm their own facile assumptions about “spendthrift” being a synonym for “left,” they have grabbed hold of the Liberals’ highly symbolic gambit to suggest that the red team has stolen the NDP’s thunder.

The problem with this shallow narrative, as well as Trudeau’s absurd attack line about the NDP adopting “Harper’s budget” by promising to balance the books, is that it focuses only on the bottom line — and media headline — while ignoring the actual programs and policies that compose the government agenda.

A truly progressive program is one that aims for the reduction of social and economic inequalities in society and the strengthening of solidarity. In this election, that mantle goes indisputably to the NDP, who are alone in proposing the first major expansion of Canada’s social safety net in decades.

True to the traditions of social democracy, the NDP’s signature proposals for new universal child care and pharmacare systems are transformative social policies that would help those at the bottom of the economic ladder the most, as would their massive reinvestments in health care, which earned the party first place in the electoral report card issued by the College of Family Physicians of Canada. They would pay for these investments through a range of measures targeting those at the top, including a two-point increase to the tax rate on large corporations and the closing of tax loopholes used by CEOs.

It certainly does not bode well for the honouring of their commitments in the future.

Taken together, these policies would amount to the most significant push in a generation to rebuild the tattered public domain. They would signal the end of the austerity era in Canada, and a modest first step in reversing the tide of corporate power and privilege that is undermining our democracy.

Next to these robust efforts to reduce the inequalities that soared under the Liberals’ watch in the 1990s, Trudeau’s vow to tax “the 1%” is akin to striking a coup in the bumper sticker wars: the measure is laudable, but the Liberal plan will do precious little with the acquired funds aside from shifting it slightly down the ladder towards the upper middle class.

Trudeau’s primary claim to challenging inequalities is thus a mirage, with the greatest tax cuts under his plan going to those earning incomes between $89,401 and $200,000, and the more than two-thirds of Canadians who earn under $50,000 a year receiving little to no help at all. The Liberals have given up on creating the social programs that act as the primary equalizers of opportunity, preferring instead Harper’s method of bribing those who vote the most with cheques in the mail.

The same pattern emerges when we compare the two parties’ climate change plans. Both Trudeau and Mulcair have made climate change central to their discourses, yet a deeper look reveals a serious lack of substance lurking behind the Liberals’ sugary facade.

While the NDP’s ambitious emissions reduction targets have been lauded by Environmental Defence, Équiterre, and Pembina as credible and science-based, Trudeau has dismissed emissions targets as unnecessary “political numbers.” The Liberals have refused to provide any national targets or carbon pricing standards at all, despite the fact the next government will be called upon to arrive at the Paris climate summit in less than two months’ time to present Canada’s commitments to the world.

Appearance vs. reality

This deep chasm between appearances and reality, style and substance, runs through the entire Liberal campaign. Upon the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in June, Trudeau demanded the immediate implementation of all of the report’s 94 recommendations. The Assembly of First Nations, however, finds the Liberal commitments far inferior to the NDP’s and points to a $500-million gap in their fiscal plan.

The Liberals, despite loudly claiming to be a party defending civil liberties and Charter rights, voted for and will maintain most of Harper’s draconian C-51. Trudeau has also breezily dismissed Harper’s sale of $15 billion in cannon-equipped armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia by making the ludicrously false claim, “They’re not arms, they’re Jeeps.”

It’s little surprise that despite throwing money in all directions, the Liberal platform somehow avoids ever arriving at a coherent vision of social progress.

Despite all of the noble principles to which the Liberals pay lip service, Trudeau has hidden behind excuses to avoid taking a stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which enough is already known to have drawn the opposition of both front-runners to the U.S. Democratic Party presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as well as countless civil society organizations and top-flight economists ranging from Jeffrey Sachs to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

Stiglitz and others warn that the sweeping and secretive pact is more about boosting corporate privilege than free trade, and yet Trudeau has invoked airy platitudes about being “pro-trade” to avoid expressing any concerns over the TPP’s vast provisions, which will further empower corporations at the direct expense of democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, Internet freedom, and action to combat climate change and protect the environment.

When the wind blows….

And what of the massive program of new infrastructure and social spending at the core of the Liberal platform?

Admittedly, their platform includes a vast array of often welcome and necessary investments in crucial areas such public transit, the CBC, affordable housing, and clean energy. The problem is less with the party’s spending priorities — most of which mimic the longstanding priorities and current pledges of the New Democrats — and more to do with their dubious sincerity, given the inconsistent records of both the party and its leader. As late as July, for example, the Liberal leader was even vowing to balance the budget, despite now making not balancing the budget his primary claim to the mantle of change.

Despite the boyish charm and buoyant energy of their new leader, the Liberals are still the party of the establishment and corporate elite.

The jack-in-the-box nature of the Liberal platform, with its sudden conversions and laundry list of promises sprung at the drop of the election writ, only adds to the narrative that emerges from the glaring gap between the party’s actions and words. Taken together, it’s enough to make the whole exercise smack of cynical electoral opportunism, lacking any foundation of genuine conviction.

This is nothing the Liberals have not accustomed us to in the past, of course, though it certainly does not bode well for the honouring of their commitments in the future. And so it’s little surprise that despite throwing money in all directions, the Liberal platform somehow avoids ever arriving at a coherent vision of social progress.

Party of change, party of power

In this election, both the New Democrats and Liberals have leaders who were selected with the express aim of putting a new face onto longstanding organizations with deeply rooted political cultures, hundreds of candidates and MPs, and tens of thousands of members. Yet in both cases, the election masks shouldn’t distract us from the underlying characters and compositions of the parties that have evolved over long histories.

Despite the boyish charm and buoyant energy of their new leader, the Liberals are still the party of the establishment and corporate elite, which they will surely take no time reminding us of the moment they return to power.

Likewise, if Tom Mulcair fails to exude the same youthful dynamism or sunny optimism as Trudeau, behind the leader the NDP’s slate of candidates is by far the youngest, and counts the most women (43 per cent) and most Indigenous candidates (6.5 per cent) of any major federal party — ever.

In sum, the NDP is still the party of transformative change, with a robustly social democratic agenda geared towards reducing inequalities, combatting climate change, initiating a new era in our relationship with First Nations, reforming our democracy through proportional representation, and reorienting Canada’s foreign policy towards peacekeeping, aid, and development.

So come Oct. 19, let’s not be made fools of by falling prey to the manipulations of the image-makers. No party can reinvent itself during an election campaign — even if it’s the longest in our history.