Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.
Michael Ignatieff’s decision to get out of Dodge is completely understandable on a personal level. Although he is by no means solely responsible for the devastating defeat, he made a significant contribution to it — just as Kim Campbell did with the Progressive Conservatives almost two decades ago.
As opposition leader, Ignatieff chose not to develop a clear program for the party on the economy, on social programs or on the environment. He preferred to wait for distaste of the Harper government to build, expecting that he would automatically be the beneficiary. This spring, he forced an election without having conveyed to Canadians any clear purpose to it other than re-electing the Liberal party, just as he had done with similarly unfortunate effect in the late summer of 2009.
While many people have correctly commented in recent days that no one anticipated the scale of the Liberal defeat, or the wave of support to the New Democratic Party, that is not the whole story. Many people did wonder in March why on earth the Liberals would force an election that they were extremely unlikely to win. It almost seemed as if Michael Ignatieff and many others in the party just wanted to get on with it — so he could have his crack at an election, and that in all likelihood, he and the party would then be released to move on. Read more…
At a town hall meeting in Vancouver last night, I had a chance to see Michael Ignatieff personally for the second time in this campaign. He was, as I remarked upon earlier in the campaign, a surprisingly capable campaigner in front of a partisan crowd. He was sharp, witty, self-deprecating, and handled questions from the audience deftly. Despite the polls of recent days, he seemed to be enjoying himself. At the end, he said he felt almost tearful that this would be his last town hall (of the campaign, I think he meant, though maybe not).
But this threatens to be an earth-shattering election for the Liberals, in which even if they hold on to most of the seats they have at the moment, they may find themselves no longer the obvious alternative to the Conservative government because of the unexpected rise of the New Democrats in Quebec, British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces.
Ontario appears to be an exception for the moment, and remains the place where the Liberals would hope to hang onto the bulk of their seats. But it tells quite a story when one of the country’s leading pollsters, Nik Nanos, explains the failure of the New Democrats to break through in Ontario in terms of memories of the Rae government in the early 1990s.
One thing Stephen Harper and Jack Layton were able to agree on in the hours after Michael Ignatieff’s launch of the Liberal platform on Sunday was that it had stolen a page or two from the NDP. The platform — an admirably long and detailed document — was filled with commitments to education, health, day care and elder care. It was a liberal document, albeit encased in a pledge to bring down the deficit over time, in part by returning corporate taxes to their 2009 level.
The question for the voters about this platform — as for that of any other party — is how seriously to take it.
Jack Layton remarked that the Liberals are famous for using a Xerox machine to copy the NDP’s policies during an election, then using a shredder to dispose of them later.
Jack Layton had a press availability in Sudbury this morning after his event-of-the-day, on recruiting and training more doctors to practice in smaller centres. The questions showed that there is a new storyline emerging among reporters on the NDP plane.
Reporters who had been on Layton’s previous campaigns pointed out that he has not been speaking to large crowds as he has done in the past, and that he is doing fewer events each day than the other leaders.
What they are probing for, of course, is whether Layton’s health — he is suffering from prostate cancer and a recently fractured hip — is inhibiting his capacity and performance on the campaign trail.
Now, it seems extremely unlikely that anyone outside the NDP campaign bubble will have noticed this, assuming the journos’ assessment of his campaign is correct.
During the last week of the 2008 election campaign, a news photographer caught a humorous scene. Stéphane Dion, whose campaign was foundering, was sitting on a television news set. Behind him was a weather graphic: five days of unremitting dark clouds and pouring rain ahead.
Dion was a complete innocent in this embarrassing photo of course: a hapless victim of a clever photographer. Even Robert Stanfield actually had to fumble the football before his cringing-inducing moment was plastered on the front page of the Globe and Mail. What the photographers had done in both cases, though, was to find a symbolic pictorial representation of a broader media perception about the success of the candidates and their campaigns.
This morning I arrived a little late to see Michael Ignatieff make an announcement on his day care policy at a pre-school in Winnipeg South (the constituency I grew up in, as it happens). I had not seen Ignatieff at a political event in person for about a year, and what surprised me was his obvious comfort and self-confidence. He seemed like he was enjoying himself, which has not always been a given for Ignatieff in his time as leader.
There are a few milestones in an election campaign. The milestones are moments when voters begin to focus on what is at stake in the election and start the process towards deciding which party will receive their support. The first few days of the campaign is one such milestone. At that time, voters begin to realize they will be called upon to cast their ballot sooner than later and they seek to catch up on what has happened since the last time they paid attention to politics. It is an important process since we know from the 2008 Canadian Election Study that about one-third of voters (33%) will make up their mind about which party to support during the election campaign – some of them very early on – while close to 20% will wait until Election Day.
In the process of getting up to speed on politics, voters will seek information from families and friends; will pay closer attention to the news and party advertisements or will be visited by local candidates who will distribute campaign literature. Others may turn to polls to get a sense of where the respective parties stand within the public opinion environment. Those voters who are turning to polls for some insights are likely confused at this point.
The Conservative plan to introduce income-splitting for some families but only when the deficit is eliminated, isn’t the first time in recent elections a political party has used the ‘announce now-deliver later’ strategy but nether the Liberals nor the Conservatives want to mention that.
In the 1993 election the first Liberal Red Book election platform document included a conditional plan to spend $720 million in a three-year program that would establish 150,000 new child care spaces across the country.
But there was a catch. It would only happen in the future when the economy was growing at three percent. With 1993 growth at about one per cent , the Red Book projected the new plan would start in 1995-96.
Of course it never happened and that’s why the Conservatives don’t want to mention the concept’s been road-tested in a previous campaign. For the Liberals any mention of it is just reminds people that they have announced but not delivered child care plans before.
Instead of child care, after they were elected the Liberals introduced widespread spending cuts in Paul Martin’s 1995 budget in a plan to eliminate a deficit of more than $40 billion. Sound familiar?
Christopher Waddell is director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News. You can follow him on Twitter @cwaddell27
That didn’t take long: just one day longer that it should have. As I predicted yesterday, Ignatieff’s views on a coalition have “evolved” under withering pressure from the media, some Liberal commentators, and the government. There was no reason why this shouldn’t have happened yesterday other than political naivete.
As Stephen Harper walked into Rideau Hall this morning, Michael Ignatieff issued a release saying that, “We will not enter a coalition with other federalist parties”. (Before you panic, the statement also says, “We categorically rule out a coalition or formal arrangement with the Bloc Quebecois.”)
Ignatieff and his advisors have made the tactical judgement that his continued obscurantism was going to dog him through the campaign, and help the Harper Conservatives to fully realize the coalition bogeyman. They cleverly released the statement just moments before Harper’s prepared remarks that went heavily on the coalition that Ignatieff has now flatly disavowed.
So they think this is what is best for the Liberal campaign.
Moments after the government fell this afternoon, Michael Ignatieff gave his first press conference in full election mode.
When he had been asked about the possibility of forming a coalition government earlier this week, he parried the question, saying that there is only a Red Door and a Blue Door in this election.
The issue is important because the Liberals want to argue, as Ignatieff did today, that a vote for any party but them is a vote for the continuation of Stephen Harper’s government. If Ignatieff allows that he might form a coalition with the NDP after the next election, then that seems obviously untrue. In that case, the election of NDP members could also contribute to the cause of ousting Harper.
If Ignatieff admits he might entertain a coalition, he undermines this central appeal. If he flatly denies he would consider one, however, he will discourage some of his own supporters, alienate potential Green and NDP switchers, and most importantly limit his strategic options after the election.
The genial former Tory minister, Monte Solberg, tweeted this week that he thought he had election fever, only to realize it was actually cholera. I don’t remember an election that inspired so much dread right from the outset, even from the political and media classes for whom elections are normally the equivalent of the Stanley Cup final. And no wonder. The last few weeks have seen a barrage of unpleasantries intruding into our evening viewing pleasure. In the House of Commons, the economy turned up briefly — for about 48 hours this week — and then receded as the opposition raged about the government’s moral failings. In question period yesterday, Ralph Goodale went after John Baird, who went at everybody else, as the snarling dogs of war strained at their leashes.
And of course, many people believe that the election result is already close to a foregone conclusion: a return of the Harper government, whether as a minority or a majority.
It probably isn’t too soon to say that Canadians’ dismal record in turning out at the polls will likely be matched or even exceeded in this election. In 2008, the turnout was just 59%. The number had been 75% as recently as 1993. If something doesn’t happen, it seems perfectly possible that before too long a majority of Canadians will be sitting on their hands at election time.
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