This past weekend, inside an Ottawa convention centre, the Prime Minister of Canada stood in front of the biggest Canadian flag this side of Canada Day, at a podium bearing a placard with a single word in large white letters:
To a crowd of hundreds of supporters waving smaller Canadian flags, there to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his government’s first election victory, Stephen Harper spoke of the people “who are the foundations of Canada”:
“The truck driver. The bank teller. The pensioner. The salesperson. The farmer, the fisherman. The entrepreneur, the autoworker. The tradesperson and the soldier… Whoever has the honor to lead them must care about them and must love Canada as much as they do.”
No mention of Canada-loving college professors or patriotic performance artists. But never mind…
The same weekend as Harper was giving his anniversary speech, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was wrapping up an 11-day tour of 20 ridings across Canada that his party thinks it can win from other parties.
“Canadians are entitled to ask, ‘are you better off than you were five years ago,’ “ Ignatieff said at the outset of his tour. “Is the economy stronger and is Canada more respected in the world? And I think the answers to all of those questions is no.”
NDP leader Jack Layton was on a cross-country tour of his own.
“If an election comes, New Democrats will be ready to go,” Layton said in Vancouver. “But until then, we’re asking Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff to work with us to get some results for Canadians right now.”
To underline the election-readiness half of that double-barreled message, the NDP offered reporters a “sneak peak at their new cutting-edge election headquarters” in Ottawa. A few days earlier, a reporter obtained and published an internal NDP memo declaring the party “prepared to wage an aggressive federal election campaign at any time”.
Meanwhile, the Conservative and Liberal parties released campaign-style attack ads.
The two Liberal ads were both aimed at the Prime Minister, painting him as more interested in fighter jets and corporate tax cuts than in the concerns of ordinary Canadians, and asking “Is this your Canada? Or Harper’s?”
The Conservatives had several different ads attacking each of the other major party leaders, although Ignatieff was targeted more than others.
“Ignatieff. He didn’t come back for you,” declared the Conservative ads, which described the Leader of the Official Opposition as a tax-and-spend liberal with a dubious commitment to his home country, similar to earlier attack ads that claimed Ignatieff was “just visiting” Canada after many years abroad.
So… are you ready for an election campaign? Or maybe you kinda feel we’re already into one.
Or maybe you’d rather not even think about it even a little bit. If that’s the case, you’re probably in the majority.
And maybe you won’t really have to think about it at all. Because it all could be a bluff.
In a minority Parliament, parties are always in election mode, ready to hit the campaign trail at any moment. And we’ve now had minority Parliaments in this country for more than 6.5 straight years. That’s a Canadian record, if you’re keeping score.
Over that time we’ve had a number of near-elections. Remember Belinda Stronach crossing the floor to help save Paul Martin’s minority government? Remember Stéphane Dion repeating over and over again how he had the power to pull the plug on Harper’s government… until finally Harper decided to pull it himself? Remember when Ignatieff announced, “Mr. Harper, your time is up?”
Ignatieff’s announcement came more than 17 months ago. No, there hasn’t been an election since then.
If there is an election this year, it likely will be triggered by a defeat of the federal budget sometime before the end of March. Any later than that and a federal election will come up against a number of already scheduled provincial elections, including Ontario’s.
Of course, all it will take to avoid an election will be a single opposition party deciding it is in its interest to prop up the government for another while longer.
But if this latest not-quite-an-election period is any indication, we already have a sense of how the next real campaign will unfold:
It will get personal. There will be flag waving. And if poll numbers (which have remained relatively consistent in the five years since Harper’s first election victory) don’t move much during the campaign, then we’re looking at many more record months of minority Parliament.