The Liberals could yet form a minority government – or even better – if all of the stars align their way.
So far, Michael Ignatieff seems to be following the script, with few mistakes, and the tour appears to be running smoothly. His strategy is aimed solely at Stephen Harper, while almost totally ignoring other political parties and their leaders. The polls taken thus far still place him behind, but on an encouraging climb.
Meanwhile, Mr. Harper, who generally likes to be in control of his ship, and who usually does it quite well, has had some challenges. First, his government was defeated on the unprecedented charge of contempt of Parliament. Next, charges have been laid against two of his very close advisors, for breaches of the election spending rules involving the 2006 campaign. More recently, two former senior political staffers were under a storm of controversy and being investigated by the RCMP for ethical breaches. Finally, Mr. Harper himself made statements about an alleged coalition of his current political opponents, only to be reminded that he had agreed to a “co-opposition accord” of his own with the Bloc and the NDP in 2004.
While these accusations and allegations are pale compared to the Mulroney controversies inherited by Kim Campbell in 1993, it remains possible that some Canadians might at some point begin to feel that the Conservatives’ time is up.
It was a bright and sunny September morning in 1993 when Canada’s new Prime Minister visited the Governor General seeking a dissolution, calling voters to the polls for October 18th. Our new PM had seen public opinion polls strongly in her favour and she seemingly walked on water as she could do no wrong. By contrast, her main opponent was considerably older and battle worn as some said. The media were calling him “yesterday’s man”.
As the campaign began, Liberal leader Jean Chretien appeared to be stalled in public opinion support. Yet, he retained his down to earth style, campaigning day and night, insisting that Prime Minister Kim Campbell had little more than a summer job, and that defeat was on the way. Many were unconvinced.
At that point, the ruling Conservatives, in what was characterized as an act of desperation, released an attack ad with a less than flattering photo of Jean Chretien with the caption “ Is this a Prime Minister?” Canadians were outraged, and within a day, Campbell had ordered the ads cancelled.
The rest is history, as the Conservatives were reduced from 157 to 2 seats. The Prime Minister lost her own seat as did her entire Cabinet, except one.
In the 2008 federal election, the Liberals created and then suffered from the development of the Greenshift, a controversial ecological program which sought to reduce taxes on less polluting economic activity and shifting the tax burden to larger polluters. The Conservatives very astutely (although falsely) depicted the program as a huge tax hike, particularly on rural Canadians. Not only did the Liberal popular vote go down as a result, but the participation rate in the election was reduced by 5 per cent to 58 percent, the lowest voter participation level since the election of 1898.
In other words, not only did some traditional Liberal supporters vote for other parties, but a large number simply did not vote at all. If these voters were to return en-masse to the participation rate of 2000, or even 2004, the result on May 2nd could be very different.
It is still very early in the election campaign, and much too early to predict who will form the government after the May 2nd election. However, at this early stage it seems like the campaign will largely focus on two leaders – at least in English speaking Canada. The performance of these two people on the campaign trail and in the debates could influence a large number of voters.
The polarization of the results which may well ensue, coupled with an error free Liberal campaign could, and probably would, increase the voter participation rate. While no one is predicting that the Harper Conservatives will repeat the mistakes of 1993 and be reduced to two seats, it would be equally wrong to predict that a Conservative win is a sure thing, let alone a majority.
The Hon. Don Boudria, P.C. is a senior counsellor with Hill & Knowlton Canada. He represented the Ontario riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell in the House of Commons from 1984 to 2006.