As this election draws to a close, I am struck that, after four elections, the central issue remains: do Canadians trust Stephen Harper with a majority government?
The sudden rise of the NDP late in this campaign suggests that a large number of Canadians see Jack Layton as the most credible way to deny Harper a majority. Layton has a much more upbeat campaign that has appealed to first time voters, but it remains to be seen if these voters will actually turn out to vote.
Despite the NDP surge, the Conservatives will win on Monday because a plurality of Canadians have become comfortable with the idea of a Harper government. There was no magic to the Conservatives’ campaign. But, their message of continuity and stability in a time of economic uncertainty should win the day.
It will be a tainted victory if they do not achieve the coveted majority. Beyond passage of their defeated budget, the Conservative agenda is not ambitious. This is probably a good thing given the uncertainty of the outcome. Slow and steady policies will win the day. Too much change will spell trouble for their next government.
The Conservative campaign was well run, largely free of controversy. Any embarrassing moments seem to arise from issues that followed the government into the election. There were no ‘pooping puffins’, registered lobbyists or ‘in and out’ scandals under campaign manager Guy Giornio. The advertising may not have shown much creativity, but it was enough to remind voters that Harper was a steady hand at the tiller.
The real test of the campaign will come on election day. The 30-seat strategy was designed to focus Conservative resources on the local ground game in a limited number of ridings. This will determine whether the Conservatives can eke out a majority. Resources were shifted from ‘air wars’ to a sophisticated ‘get out the vote’ machine. With advertising costs spiralling and election spending limits stifling the parties ability to conduct a truly national campaign, this strategy may prove to be an effective use of limited resources.
For the Liberals, Monday’s vote is shaping up to be a disaster. Their whole campaign was based on the premise that it would take an election to shake voters out of their pre-election paralysis. They were right about that! Well run logistically, the Liberal campaign lacked strategic focus from the start. For most of the campaign it looked like they were testing weekly messages of Conservative contempt of Parliament, their Liberal family pack platform, health care hidden agendas, and the least credible – NDP Conservatives – ‘two sides of the same coin’. Meanwhile Michael Ignatieff never recovered from the part he played in the 2008 opposition coalition. His part in the defeat of the government this year was seen as just another power grab. The Liberals will pay dearly for their impatience to govern, with Michael Ignatieff ‘just visiting’ as a Liberal leader. The party must now get serious about revitalizing itself for the future and assessing the consequences of coming in third.
The second story of the election has to be the sudden rise of Jack Layton and the NDP. While the English Leaders’ Debate largely confirmed voter impressions of Layton, he made great inroads in the French debate which was often dominated by him trying to out flank Gilles Duceppe on linguistic and constitutional issues. With Duceppe running a largely lacklustre campaign, Layton made the election in Quebec exciting. By the end, he may well have done federalists a profound service by denying the separatists another moral victory.
In the process he has vaulted the NDP into a position in the polls that suggests he has a crack at official opposition status. Over the weekend, Layton needs to stay focused on finishing off the Liberals and giving Quebecers a new voice in Ottawa. The re-alignment of Canada’s electoral landscape into a two party left and right is a dream of socialists and conservatives alike. This may well prove to be the most historic outcome of this election.
Finally the Bloc Quebecois may be about to receive the comeuppance that federalists have hoped for for years. It has been infuriating to watch as the Federal Government subsidized a political party that is dedicated to the breakup of the country. According to IPSOS data, the tolerance and respect normally accorded Duceppe during the English debate, took a noticeable turn in this election. Maybe it was his hostile attitude toward Mr. Harper or his explicit appeal for a separatist country, but in this election Canadians tired of him. In the French debate, he traded barbs with Layton on issues that should have been his preserve and then went on to campaign at the Provincial PQ convention. His flat out appeal of a separatist’s agenda in the middle of a Federal election appears to have woken Quebec up to the realization that they have virtually shut themselves out of power in Ottawa for twenty years.
By backing the NDP, Quebec is re-aligning the political landscape in a way that accommodates its values in a new official opposition. The implications could be profound on Monday, if the NDP can convert its Quebec support into seats. At a minimum Duceppe has suffered a significant loss of momentum for the separatist cause. Maybe Quebecers have truly figured out that the best way to influence Canada is to take the leading role in transforming the political landscape.
Monday promises to be historic for all parties in a campaign that is really about who Canadians trust to lead their government. Voters who thought this election would produce the same result will be in for a surprise.