Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General for the dissolution of Canada’s 39th Parliament and Her Excellency will ask for the return of writs in 37 days. All five major party leaders made television appearences to either give speeches, take question or both. Here are my initial impressions.
Stephane Dion started by saying that in this election there will be “two stark differences”, that between the Liberal Party and the Conservatives. Stephane Dion is picking up right where Paul Martin left-off. No, I’m not talking about a firesale where all seats must go, but rather by trying to define the election as one of two choices. Unfortunately for Mr. Dion, this election is crowded on the left and will see attention given to NDP, Bloc and even the Liberal-proxy Greens which may end up being more trouble than benefit for the Liberals. In modern elections, Liberals have always had to strike out against their main Conservative opponents while taking time to suppress NDP gains on the left. By defining “two stark differences”, the right may be well-defined but there is a low signal-to-noise ratio on the left. Dion also made a point of saying that he “loves Canada” and took a minor tangent and regaled people on his love for our country. You’ll remember that Stephen Harper wasn’t so explicit when asked by a reporter/plant during the last campaign on this topic. It took the then-opposition leader by surprise and his answer wasn’t prepared. This may be significant because of the similar backdrops of the House of Commons; Dion gave his launch speech in exactly the same location that Harper did in December 2005. The Liberals may be trying set the scene quite literally for a contrast video piece on “loving Canada”.
A reporter asked Dion if he accepts the premise that this election is defined by leadership. Dion stumbles by accepting this directly and says that he leads on the environment, poverty and a whole list of Liberal policies. The Conservatives would like nothing better than the national media to accept leadership as the ballot box question and define the rest of the race through this lens through which the Conservatives have already focused their message for almost two years since Dion won the leadership race in late 2006. I also think that it was a disastrous mistake for the Liberals to lead with what is their de facto main policy plank months before this election. Questions have arisen even among Dion’s own MPs about the implementation, the regional differences and even the concept of the Green Shift itself. Canadians are aware of the Green Shift, so how does Dion plan to re-launch it? A reporter asked about the “carbon tax” and whether its a good policy for Canadians. Dion responds without redefining the question about the “Green Shift” and answers it instead in the context of a tax. These were two significant mistakes by Dion; to accept this election as a referendum on leadership and taxation.
Jack Layton addressed supporters from Gatineau along the banks of the Ottawa River overlooking Parliament. The speech was somewhat annoying because his crowd of supporter either wasn’t big enough, or didn’t translate on the microphone well enough to sound big. The camera shot also featured a somewhat disheveled looking lady and a guy in a bucket-hat. While his supporters applauded every speech point (which were many and frequent), Layton defined this election for himself; Jack Layton is running for the job of Prime Minister. Layton is taking a bolder and different track this time around and doing (what he may argue) Dion cannot. By echoing the same message of a choice between two visions, Layton is trying to drop the Liberals from the game. How can NDP voters go Liberal to stop Harper when Liberals gave the Prime Minister the green light during the last session? The Conservatives and NDP will attack the Green Shift on two fronts. On the right, increased taxation will be Conservatives warning to Canadians while on the left the NDP will make try their point that only the NDP has credibility on the environment (Bill C-377).
Gilles Duceppe with each passing election is becoming an anachronism in Canadian politics. The Bloc Quebecois leader’s speech had a number of hidden agenda references from George Bush to abortion to gender equality. Isn’t this 2008? We’ve heard this song before et désolé, ici ce n’est pas le Bloc. Also of note, Canada may be unique in modern western democracies in that it is a viable election strategy to inflate your opponents chances indicating that they may win a majority government.
Finally, Elizabeth May gave an impassioned speech about voter participation which should be well received by anyone watching. However, May’s passion moved into a speech about climate change that gave me the feeling that an advocacy group has not yet fully matured into a political party. If the Greens are going to debate, they need to broaden their platform and present themselves as alternative on the left rather than a pseudo-Liberal coalition. Watching CPAC coverage, I could not believe my ears that former Sierra Club senior policy adviser and now-Green Party spokesman John Bennett said that because of climate change “Stephen Harper doesn’t give a damn about his children’s future”. The Green Party is not ready for prime time. However, the fact that CPAC is putting them on panels, featuring May in the rotation may indicate that the most balanced political news outlet considers them part of the mainstream and this will have an effect on their coverage (and political gains). Will the Greens’ coverage actually harm the Liberals? Does the emergence of a fifth voice (and fourth on the left) amplify trouble for the Liberal brand especially under the weak leadership of Dion?