09/02/2015 16:52 EDT | Updated 09/02/2016 01:12 EDT

Parties talk big spending, but details most often missing from big numbers

OTTAWA — Voter beware: The three main federal parties have made billions of dollars worth of spending promises but voters are advised to read the fine print. Five trends to watch for: 

1) Big numbers, small details: Much of the promised largesse won't start flowing right away. For instance, the NDP has fended off rival attacks over how Tom Mulcair can afford to pay for big-ticket spending promises on things like child care by pointing to the details of the plan. The party plans to ramp up spending over the course of several years. Those details are in party documents available online. But details don't make good soundbites.

2) Big numbers, big details: Conditions are attached to some promises. For instance, the biggest spending item the Conservatives have pledged to date is an extension of the home renovation tax credit which would cost the government $1.5 billion a year in lost revenue. This sounds good to property owners who want to do a little work around their home, but there's a catch. The plan is contingent on a turnaround in the economy, meaning it could be a year, two, or three before the boutique tax credit becomes available.

3) Big numbers, small spending: Leaders sometimes add promised new spending to funding that's already committed to come up with a more impressive sounding dollar figure. For instance, Tom Mulcair has vowed to spend $1.3 billion per year for 20 years to help municipalities pay for public transit infrastructure. But the fine print shows Mulcair is planning to top up the funds currently earmarked for public transit, to come up with $1.3 billion in total by the fourth year of an NDP mandate. That means no more than $550 million in new spending in year two and as little as $300 million in year four.

4) Small numbers, old numbers: The Conservatives have made one promise that appeared new on the surface. Dig a little deeper and it's not that new. A pledge to increase the number of Canadian Junior Rangers groups in the North to more than 150 is already part of the long-term plan for the Department of National Defence. (See page 54 of the department's 2015-16 report on plans and priorities.)

5) Big numbers, no numbers: Beware of promises with no price tags attached. The Conservatives and Liberals have each made almost the same promise for veterans' families to improve what's known as the earning loss benefit. The benefit is a taxable monthly payment to families of soldiers and veterans who died as a result of their time with the military. The Conservatives didn't put out any spending figure attached to their promise to improve it. The Liberals have pegged their promise at $40 million.

The Canadian Press