You would have to be foolish to predict the shape of the government that will form after the October 19 federal election. Canadian politics continues to surprise--look at the May election in Alberta. We can anticipate that the economy and security will be important. But it will be the leaders, ground game and war rooms that will decide a race that will likely turn on a small number of hard-fought riding-by-riding contests.
I cannot pretend to be neutral: as leader of the New Brunswick NDP, I will be working hard to make Tom Mulcair Canada's first NDP prime minister. But here I offer a survey of the leaders, the party strategies and machines and the political landscape they'll battle over during the campaign.
Since the peculiar election of 2011, no party has maintained support above the 40 per cent needed for a comfortable win. Justin Trudeau, gifted with adulatory media coverage but hobbled by repeated gaffes, has returned a shattered Liberal Party to contention, but has been less successful in defining who he is beyond being heir to a famous name. Thomas Mulcair, exceptional in the House of Commons, has maintained support in Quebec and kept the NDP viable as an alternative across Canada, but his party struggles to change long-held negative perceptions. Stephen Harper, who has endured a succession of mistakes and scandals common to a party approaching the end of a decade in power, is undoubtedly a divisive figure, even loathed by many, but his party remains popular in many parts of the country.
The Conservatives do best on questions of economic management, the issue that heads Canadians' list of concerns. During the Tory years, high oil and gas prices pumped from Harper's prairie heartland injected billions into equalization payments for have-not provinces suffering from the decline of the manufacturing and non-petroleum resource sectors. Thousands who made the trek to work in Fort McMurray sent remittance payments home to struggling families in the Atlantic Provinces and elsewhere. Now, with the price of oil hovering around $50 and many of those workers heading home to join the unemployment lines, the economy stands on the edge: disaster hasn't struck, but it could.
The Conservatives take credit for economic stability (however precarious), their capstone a barely balanced budget tabled in April. The budget was otherwise predictable, filled with cotton candy for target voters, including a long-awaited income-splitting tax reform that won't benefit 85 per cent of Canadians. There's money for transport in a pitch to urban voters, balanced budget legislation for hard-core conservatives, and a cut in the small business tax. There's no single strong signal fire. Instead there are many small flashes of light, sending reassuring Morse code messages into the darkness to the 40 per cent of the electorate who will still, after ten years, consider voting for the Conservatives.
To reach those voters, Harper's campaign will spend heavily on government advertising. Everyone knows that governments will, even should, promote their own work: it's supposed to be our work too, something we should be proud of. The Conservatives will claim it is a complete coincidence that wave after wave of ads precisely mirror the party's communications priorities. That's the problem with the Tories' campaign: it's too self-interested. The government is not so much letting the public know what it's doing as demanding recognition from us for its good work.
It's a good sign that Canadians dislike this, but there are also good reasons why all parties promise to ban political advertising when they're in opposition but never do when they're in government. We dislike the ads and signs because they work, no matter your opinion of Harper's government. You notice the signs and, in your mind, they add up as accomplishments. You know you're being manipulated but you're still being manipulated. It's annoying.
But the books are balanced. Unemployment is reasonable given historic precedents and global turmoil, although economic fringes such as the Maritimes are afflicted with jobless figures near or over 10 per cent. From Wabush to Victoria, the country's highways and building sites are dotted with those ubiquitous blue placards signalling federal investment. Harper is walking a tightrope, taking credit for sound management while simultaneously warning of the dangers posed by NDP and Liberal inexperience: you may not like us, but just imagine what would happen if the other folks were in charge.
This is a particular challenge for the NDP, a party suffering from the reality that it has never governed the country and the perception that it is incapable of managing the economy. Facts don't support the latter claim: at the provincial level, New Democrats have delivered more budget surpluses per year in government than their Liberal or Tory counterparts. The party's icon...