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Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Campaign strategy

Christopher Waddell

Confidence or the lack of it is the reason why governments in the United States and Europe have had to bail out their banks. In Canada it’s confidence – or lack of it – in the economic future that seems set to determine the outcome of the federal election.

Economic policy has dominated many elections but the debate has been about the economic conditions at the time of the campaign. This election is different as the economy is in good shape now but every day reveals more and more evidence that conditions are going to get worse – perhaps a lot worse – in the months to come. No one knows how bad it might be and that’s what undermines confidence, particularly when economic shocks arrive on a daily basis.

It’s that lack of confidence that Stephane Dion tapped into with his five-point plan to address future economic problems announced at the start of last week’s French language debate. The plan isn’t much beyond initially scheduling a round of meetings to assess the situation and so Stephen Harper attacked it at the opening of the English-language debate, suggesting Dion panicked and criticizing its lack of specifics.

The Conservatives missed the point. The public didn’t want specifics perhaps because no one knows what is going to happen. They needed the confidence that their political leaders were aware of the pending downturn and were prepared to asses the situation and act as needed. Dion’s statement seems to have met that test. Liberals have new confidence and suddenly the Conservatives are playing catch up with growing doubts about whether they can get a majority after all.

Stephen Harper’s speech today in releasing his party’s platform was all about how the Conservatives have seen the problems coming for a year and have taken measured steps in response that will ensure Canada does not face the economic crises now rolling through the U.S. and Europe. In other words, he’s now playing to the same need to build confidence that Dion did last week. 

But he is somewhat constrained in what he can say and do. On the campaign trail he is talking as leader of the Conservative party but to the rest of a nervous world, when he speaks, he is talking as the Prime Minister.  So every thing he says will be dissected internationally for any hints of problems in Canada.

Last night in Quebec the Conservatives started a renewed attack on the Liberal Green Shift (which Dion has conspicuously stopped talking about) arguing that an unpredictable economic future is no time to impose new taxes (while omitting that the Liberal plan includes significant income tax cuts the Liberals say will offset new carbon taxes).

Having misread the public mood and with just a week to go in the campaign, the question is whether the Conservatives have the time to convince enough Canadians both that they care too and that their calm, measured response is the right one for an uncertain future. If they can’t do it, it looks like their best hope is another minority government.

Christopher Waddell is associate director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University and a former Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief, former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and election night executive producer for CBC TV News.