Let the games begin

Paul Wells on how a snoozer budget became the pretext for an election frenzy

Let the games begin

Chris Wattie/Reuters

“Canada needs a principled, stable government,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told the House of Commons. “Now is not the time for instability.”

Instability would “drive investment away.” It would “jeopardize the gains we have made.” The choice facing Parliament was “between stability and uncertainty.” Between “principle and opportunism.”

Jack Layton took one look at it all and chose opportunistic instability to jeopardize gains and drive investment away. That’s not quite how he phrased it. The first surprise of Campaign 2011 was that the guy making the bold move wasn’t Stephen Harper. In fact, as budget day turned into the apparent kickoff of an election campaign, the Prime Minister was the one in the corner trying to make himself small.

Harper, of course, is notorious for his bold moves. He leads a party he sewed together from the corpses of the damned. His promises—elected Senate, fixed elections, a Quebec unadorned by designations of special status—lie in tatters at his feet. But unlike some partisans of the grand gesture, Harper has often opted for another kind of gambit: the gesture so small it amounts to a critique of everyone else’s grand gestures.

“No poison pills,” one of the PM’s spinners told reporters locked into the Ottawa Conference Centre to study copies of the budget before Flaherty’s speech. The Conservatives were certain they had left the opposition nothing they could call a provocation worth defeating the government over. The government would “appoint a financial literacy leader,” “prevent the spread of plum pox” and avoid strikes with “a variety of services and workshops.” It would provide all of $75 a year in tax breaks for parents whose kids do art. If there was a poison pill in this budget, it was a horse tranquilizer.

This was how Harper fought the 2008 election, smiling and waving while Stéphane Dion knocked himself out. Harper has long seen big ideas as targets. He was adamant in 2006 and 2008 that he would not breathe a word about his plans before the writ drop, for fear the Liberals would steal his ideas. He made Stéphane Dion’s carbon-tax plan into the Liberals’ biggest burden in 2006. He has worked all year to do the same with Michael Ignatieff’s plan to delay corporate income-tax cuts.

Harper was counting on this insipid budget to keep him in power. He was sure Layton, with the smallest caucus in the Commons and an uncertain bill of health, had no heart for a campaign.

All of which left Layton—not Ignatieff or the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe—in a position to decide the government’s defeat and to set the articles of indictment against Harper.

In January, Layton set four conditions for his support: a tax cut on home heating fuel; hundreds of new doctors; an increase in seniors’ pensions; and restoration of a residential environmental retrofit program. The budget delivered the fourth, part of the third, and nothing at all on the first two demands. “Mr. Harper just doesn’t get it,” Layton told startled reporters. And the race was on.

Ever since he became NDP leader in 2003, Layton has sought to put himself at the centre of the nation’s politics. The results were mixed at best. Each election brought a smaller increase in the NDP’s share of the popular vote. Layton’s attempts to claim, in 2008, that he was applying for Harper’s job as PM were met with derision. The undreamed-of chance to form a coalition government with the Liberals collapsed under Dion’s shaky leadership and Harper’s withering attack.

Now, at last and for at least the space of a wild afternoon on Parliament Hill, Canada was paying attention. “Stephen Harper had an opportunity to address the needs of the hard-working middle-class families,” Layton told a clot of reporters in the foyer of the Commons. “Sadly he chose to provoke an election instead.”

Oh no, he didn’t. He tried his damnedest to avoid one. But as Conservatives realized they would be fighting for their own seats instead of selling voters a snoozy financial plan, they reminded themselves they begin the campaign in a comfortable lead. For a month, most public polls have shown the Conservatives more than 10 points ahead of the Liberals, roughly the distance that separated Harper’s party from Dion in 2008, the year of a historic Liberal rout. The trend in most recent elections has been for the Conservatives to gain support during a campaign, whether in opposition or in government. And an Ipsos Reid poll last week suggested 28 per cent of respondents trusted the Conservatives to provide “open, honest and trustworthy government” compared to 22 per cent for the NDP and only 15 per cent for the Liberals.

Still, it’s not all blue skies for Harper’s party. A Commons committee found the government in contempt of Parliament for failing to produce requested documents. Former Harper staffer Bruce Carson was caught up in charges of influence-peddling in relation to a scheme to sell water purification to First Nations communities and cut his lady friend, a former escort, in on the profits.

Even on some of the more ordinary business of government, Harper finds himself in an unaccustomed position—the wrong side of public opinion. A Nanos poll found substantial opposition to his plan to buy top-of-the-line jet fighters, even among respondents who otherwise support the Conservatives.

If Harper has a big idea that will fundamentally change the equation of this election, he kept it well hidden on budget day. Instead he has given every indication that he wants to rerun his most successful campaign of 2008. No, not that year’s election campaign. Harper’s real triumph came several weeks later, when the opposition parties teamed up to form a rival coalition government. The experience marked Harper deeply, and he has not forgotten how that sharply polarized confrontation left him with far higher voter support than he was able to command in an ordinary election campaign.

Repeatedly since the coalition crisis, he has said voters will face a choice between a stable Conservative majority and a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois cabal. Strenuous denials from the supposed coalition plotters have not deterred him. This is certain to be a major theme of his 2011 campaign.

Somewhere in the middle of all this will be Michael Ignatieff. He entered politics bearing the promise of rarefied intellect and globe-trotting cachet. Instead his opponents have depicted him as a grasping parvenu. His policy ideas, which change often, have become less flashy with each rethink, more focused on the preoccupations of middle-class working families, the same cohort the NDP claims as its birthright and among whom Harper’s Conservatives have made their strongest gains in every election he has fought.

Probably it won’t take Ignatieff long to reclaim some of the spotlight that shone on Layton on the first night. But as a snoozer budget became the pretext for an epic election battle, the Liberal leader seemed marginalized. The futures markets of political Ottawa had long since discounted his opposition to the Flaherty budget. As Ignatieff himself had repeatedly protested, it wasn’t up to him whether the government lived or died.

Ignatieff is the only major party leader fighting his first campaign. First campaigns are brutal. Ask Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, who rode a lost bus and wore a goofy hairnet during his 1997 debut. The Liberals hope a year’s rehearsals on the road will improve Ignatieff’s performance, and that his policies—bolder than Harper’s, more modest than Layton’s—will hit the voters’ sweet spot.

Gaffes and accusations will compete for headline space and the attention spans of voters. A chart in Flaherty’s forgotten budget suggests the stakes are much higher.

The chart shows major transfers to individuals—Employment Insurance and benefits to children and the elderly—holding steady as a fraction of GDP for the next four years. Cash transfers to the provinces will hold steady too. But direct program expenses—services and programs Ottawa delivers itself, in its own areas of jurisdiction—are slated to decline from seven per cent of GDP in 2011-2012 to 5.9 per cent in 2015-2016.

That’s a plan for marked and steady decentralization, for an Ottawa that accounts for a steadily smaller share of all government activity in Canada. The budget projections continue a decentralizing trend that has been a hallmark of Harper’s years in government. Much of this campaign’s drama will be a proxy for a simple question: should that trend continue or reverse? The Prime Minister has preferred to avoid the question, or frame it to his advantage. For the first time in awhile, he is learning he can’t win ’em all.

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