They’re Off!

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Parliament may still be sitting for another day or two but there is little action that matters up on the Hill these days. The election campaign won’t officially begin until early September but the unofficial one, which has been bubbling along for months, will now go into full swing. Yesterday, the two main opposition leaders launched the summer tour with major policy speeches. Trudeau proposed significant changes to the electoral system – declaring the first-past-the-post will disappear if he becomes PM and promising a kinder, gentler and more transparent government. Meanwhile Tom Mulcair spoke to business leaders to assure them there will be no radical economic changes under an NDP government and to declare himself a defender of Canadian industry abroad.

Both are positioning themselves as the champions of change with Trudeau talking about a change in style and Mulcair offering a change in the politics of fear and a renewal of Canada as a multi-industry nation.

Meanwhile, Stephen Harper has been promising more of the same – his government have tabled a slew of tough-on-crime Bills in the House – even though there is no chance of them being passed before Parliament rises.

This summer will see the party leaders spread out across Canada – or in Gilles Duceppe’s case across Quebec – trying to position themselves as either the party of change or the party that offers a sure hand.

Each has their advantages. Harper is the incumbent and has the (dis)advantage of familiarity. People know what they are getting – like it or not – and the conservatives have strong policies that appeal to at least a core group of the public. They will run on fear – of crime and terrorism – and a promise of lower taxes and sound economic management. They will also trot out billions in spending (money already announced two or three times) on infrastructure to prove that despite their age they are still spry enough to do something. They will of course be burdened down by the fact they seem old – how long have these guys been in power anyway is a question I often hear (just slightly longer than the Mulroney/Campbell government) – and so by the baggage one accumulates over time, notably Mike Duffy and the Senate Scandal.

Speaking of the Senate, Tom Mulcair has promised to make the abolition of the Senate the centre of his election campaign – though John Oliver may have taken some of the wind out of his sails with his satirical take on the scandal. I’ve had a couple of ordinary people (i.e. people unconnected to politics in any way) tell me they no longer care about the Senate scandal after seeing Oliver’s video. But the NDP have other issues – the $15 minimum wage, low cost day care are two major ones – and have the momentum of the recent Alberta elections. But they also have their own mini-scandal, a matter of a couple of million dollars that they may have spent in contravention of the rules. They say no but it will be a centerpiece of both Conservative and Liberal attack ads. And the return of Duceppe in Quebec may threaten their base in that province.

As for the Liberals, they have the toughest job of all. Trudeau is attractive – in the personality department as much as physically – but that only takes you so far. The Liberals have been trying to capture the middle, embracing some policies of the left and some of the right while trying to distinguish themselves from both sides of the spectrum. It has worked fairly well on some issues but not so well on others, notably their position on Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terror bill that has a lot of civil libertarians worried. In a world and a country where the populace us growing more polarized (while the main political parties all claim to represent the centre) it is difficult to stake out a position in the true middle.

Of course, the elephant in the room is money. The Conservatives have a well-oiled fund raising machine and a dedicated group of contributors. The Liberals have been catching up while the NDP lags behind. Whether money can buy campaigns remains to be seen and, in any case, the amounts are relatively paltry compared to the billions that will be spent in the USA over the next 18 months.

Four months is a long time to be campaigning by Canadian standards. I expect most of us will tune out over the summer before focusing in again in September. That’s why there’s so much action in Ottawa this week – they are hoping to plant some seeds that will sprout and grow over the summer that they can harvest on Election Day come October 19th.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.

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