They're coming after your family

Days into a contest of meanness, a surprisingly clear contrast on honest-to-goodness platforms has suddenly emerged

Election 2011: They're coming after your family

Photograph by Cole Garside

In the final days leading up to the campaign of 2011, Stephen Harper largely dropped out of sight. The Prime Minister stopped showing up for question period when his government’s fall became inevitable. After the opposition voted down his Conservative minority, he read a muted response from a podium in the ornate foyer of the House, and took no questions. There was reason to suspect he might be setting the tone for the race to come. After all, polls showed him well ahead, and a classic, minimalist front-runner’s strategy would be to do nothing to risk shaking things up. But Harper had other ideas.

From the steps of Rideau Hall after visiting the Governor General to set the campaign in motion, and at every stop after, he lashed out at his main rival, Michael Ignatieff—accusing the Liberal leader of intending to break his word and join forces with the NDP and Bloc Québécois. In return, Ignatieff indicted Harper for “a systematic pattern of falsehoods.” “He wouldn’t recognize the truth if it walked up and shook his hand,” he said.

All federal elections have their elbows-up moments, but few have featured the key combatants portraying each other so bluntly as liars from the outset. The unusually bitter tone springs from Harper’s insistence that if his Conservatives win only another minority, Ignatieff’s secret plan is to forge a coalition with the NDP’s Jack Layton and the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe to seize power. He bases this allegation, of course, on the late 2008 bid by Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion, to do just that, after Dion had vowed not to during that fall’s campaign. “Their record is clear,” Harper says. “Deny it in an election and do it afterwards.” And so he brushes off Ignatieff’s vow to let whichever party wins the most seats, even if it’s a third consecutive Tory minority, take the first crack at forming a government.

Harper’s insistence on the inevitability of the coalition—if voters again deny him a majority—did more than make the campaign’s early days uncommonly rancorous. The theme also invited a heavy dose of arcane debate about Parliament’s conventions regarding unstable minorities. The combination wasn’t promising: a campaign dominated by a mix of personal invective, from which most voters recoil, and constitutional nuances, which make most eyes glaze over. But wait. Only three days into this contest of meanness and minutiae, a surprisingly clear contrast on platforms—honest-to-goodness policy—suddenly entered the picture. First, Harper announced an income-splitting plan for parents that could cut taxes for 1.8 million families. Next, Ignatieff counterpunched with a plan to give every student who enrolls in college or university $4,000—$6,000 for students from low-income families.

These centrepiece policies introduced something beyond mutual contempt into the rivalry between Harper and Ignatieff. The Conservatives’ family tax plan is classic Harper. It targets two-parent, middle-class families, and is particularly valuable when a mom decides to stay home to raise kids. The promise is to let couples split their income for tax purposes. That means shifting some income from the parent earning the most to the parent in the lower tax bracket. It would cost $2.5 billion a year and save 1.8 million families an average of $1,300. “We will make it easier,” Harper declared in the tidy backyard of a family near Victoria, “for parents to cover the day-to-day costs of raising their kids.”

But not right away. The weak link of his plan was the long lead time: Harper said it would only be introduced after he balances the federal budget, likely not for five years. Ignatieff said his so-called “Learning Passport” could be implemented in just two years. If the Liberals win the election, Ottawa would start paying $4,000 into the Registered Education Savings Plan of any student who goes to college or university, or $6,000 for low-income students. “This is a real revolution in learning and training in Canada,” Ignatieff said. “It will give us the means of becoming the most competitive economy in the world.” Braced for the inevitable Tory attack on the plan as a profligate Liberal big-government scheme, Ignatieff stressed that running it though the RESP program will minimize the need for new bureaucracy.
Even so, Ignatieff’s $1-billion plan was distinctly Liberal in its enthusiasm for direct government spending and public institutions—just as Harper’s tax-splitting policy flowed straight from the wellspring of the Conservative instinct for lower taxes and family responsibility. At root, the two plans suggest clashing visions of what middle-class voters, in particular, want from Ottawa. Is it more help or less hindrance?

Election 2011: They're coming after your family

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

At the heart of Harper’s daily pitch is a series of boutique measures, many modest tax credits targeted at middle-class families: a break on the cost of signing kids up for arts programs, and for anyone caring for a dependent family member who’s sick or infirm, and on student loans. Ignatieff is trying to reach the same audience, but mainly with programs rather than tax relief. “The cost of college and university is slipping out of reach for too many middle-class families,” he said of his education idea.

Even the campaign-trail venues chosen by the two leaders suited their ideological centres of gravity. Ignatieff announced his education plan at Sheridan College, near Toronto, where 15,000 students at two campuses study everything from film and television to interior design to plumbing. The former professor spoke in a library surrounded by students. That same morning, Harper held a campaign event in Regina at Performance Marine, a boat dealership. The self-declared champion of small business spoke to reporters, with local Conservative candidates gathered around, in a repair bay where mechanics are usually busy fixing inboard and outboard motors.

Their performance styles contrast as much as their preferred backdrops. Ignatieff brings the intensity of a politician with ground to make up. He sometimes balls up his fists, and bends his knees as he comes to a key point, then extends his lanky frame into an exclamation point to finish it. Harper has never been a galvanizing speaker, but his unmodulated delivery, at its best, conveys an everyman quality that connects with the Conservative faithful, who pride themselves on their average-Canadian qualities. His real strength as a performer on the hustings, though, as he proved repeatedly in the opening days of his fourth national run as Tory leader, is his unblinking, unflappable demeanour when media grow insistent, or even unruly.

And the questioning certainly took on an exasperated tone for the first two days of this campaign. Harper had made the spectre of a Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition his main message. Yet he was vague when pressed about his own history of co-operation with Layton and Duceppe. Back in 2004, when he led the Tories in opposition to then-prime minister Paul Martin’s Liberal minority, Harper signed a joint letter with Layton and Duceppe, asking the governor general to consider “options” if Martin sought an election. Layton and Duceppe say what they had in mind was Harper heading a government, with their backing. Without having to win an election. Exactly what he accused Ignatieff of plotting now.

Harper said he intended nothing of the sort. And for two days, he wouldn’t clarify just what “options” he’d wanted the GG to consider. Then, on the campaign’s third morning, he offered an explanation. “I would have told the governor general, ‘We in fact are not trying to bring the government down. All Mr. Martin has to do is sit down and talk to us and I’m sure we will find a resolution.’ ” In other words, he hoped the GG would urge Martin to play nice. Is that in the vice-regal job description? Not according to University of New Brunswick parliamentary expert Don Desserud. Ned Franks, Queen’s University’s resident sage on Parliament, called the Prime Minister’s explanation “utter nonsense.”

But all Harper needed was an answer that didn’t sound too slippery. He wasn’t willing to drop from its prominent place in his campaign the message that the Liberals don’t merely represent an alternative government, but rather a dangerous merging of leftist and separatist aspirations. And Harper combines this unusually dark caricature of his opponent with an alarming characterization of the state of the world. “Yes, Canada is doing relatively well,” he says, “but a sea of troubles is lapping at our shores. Disaster in the Pacific, chaos in the Middle East, debt problems in Europe, and, of course, some very serious challenges just south of our border. Canada is the closest thing the world has to an island of security and stability.”

It’s a strikingly dark message to be running on just two years after Barack Obama seemed to make “hope” the era’s inescapable political campaigner’s theme. Yet one of Harper’s biggest applause lines in his standard stump address is that depiction of Canada as an island of calm in a sea of turmoil. In particular, the line earns ovations from Tory crowds that include large contingents of immigrants and their Canadian-born children. Those voters are among the most sought-after of this campaign, seen as a swing subset of the prized middle-class family demographic, especially where concentrated in suburban Toronto and Vancouver.

Conservatives and Liberals have sparred over how to refer to new Canadian voters, or whether to at all. Picking up on a Tory strategy document that targets “very ethnic” ridings, Ignatieff objected to the term “ethnic vote.” “I don’t think it treats people with respect,” he said. “These are Canadians.” Yet his party announced TV ads aimed at “multicultural audiences” and “vibrant communities,” in languages from Punjabi to Mandarin to Portuguese. Harper didn’t hesitate to appeal to the immigrant sensibility. To a Burnaby, B.C., crowd including many Asian Canadians, he said “people who come to this country from all over the world” would recognize a Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition as a “reckless idea.”

Of course, it’s an idea only Harper really cared to talk about. Whether he’ll be able to sustain it as a compelling, central concern right through to the May 2 vote remained in question. Clearly, he thinks its potential is huge, raising this election’s stakes to a choice between his majority and a shadowy outcome that’s “not right, not democratic, and not Canada.” But another possible campaign dynamic is on the table—the battle suggested by the Conservative tax-splitting pledge and the Liberal education payments promise, and the deeper disagreement about the role of government that they represent. What was shaping up as an extended exchange of pejoratives might yet turn into a test of platforms.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.