Finally and mercifully, we have seen the launch of the 2004 election campaign, after weeks of false starts, failing poll numbers and apparent dithering by the Liberal party, the plunge has been taken. June 28th the Canadian public will be tasked with either putting the seal of approval on the new Liberal leader Paul Martin, or turning over the keys to that young whippersnapper from the West, Stephen Harper. Jack Layton will also get the chance to make his bones in a campaign as he leads his NDP believers into the fray for the first time. The only sure bet for Canadians is that Gilles Duceppe will not be the Prime Minister on June 29th.
Martin made the short walk from 24 Sussex to the Governor General's residence with his wife Sheila by his side and a phalanx of reporters, camera men and party apparatchiks along for the stroll. After advising Ms. Clarkson that he would appreciate her dissolving Parliament, Martin launched his campaign to return as Prime Minister the choice of Canadians and not just the Liberal party. Looking into the collection of cameras Martin smiled and said: "Five months ago, our new government took office, in the short time since then, we have accomplished much while confronting head-on some very difficult issues. ...I'm proud of our record. But I want to do much more."
And with that we’re all off to the races. Touching on the usual themes of Liberalism such as health care, social justice and prosperity for all, Martin used his debut to try and paint a picture of his party as the champion for Canada, going unspoken the assumption that the Conservatives will take us all to the dark side and lead us to ruin. At least that’s the message we’ve been receiving in the last couple of weeks as the pre-election rhetoric got ramped up for today’s opening salvo.
While Martin was stepping out on the grounds of Rideau Hall for his declaration, Stephen Harper held court in the press room of the National Press building. He used his opening day appearance to counter some of the spin from the Liberal party of the last little while. To Harper went the best line of the day, when he declared “in this country, you can be Canadian without being a Liberal” alluding to the campaign material that the Liberals have used in the past, equating all good in Canada comes from Liberal minds. If anything sticks in the craw of the opposition parties, it’s the quasi arrogant nature of the Liberal platform that tends to suggest that only Liberals make for good Canadians.
Having found his persona demonized to a degree the last few weeks Harper tended to focus on the past behavior of the Liberals under Jean Chrétien, with Paul Martin along for the ride all the way. His portrait of a party steeped in scandal will find a core group of believers; the key is if he can keep that particular chestnut in the fire for the next five weeks. With governmental monies washing ashore in ridings across the country, voters may find that securing their future under the current regime is a better play than punishing the deeds of the previous one. Then again, they may wish to send a message of distaste of the nature of the game of late and park their votes with an opposition party, Harper is hoping that the disappointed and disaffected will choose his Conservative brand.
Over in Toronto, the Jack Layton led NDP, head into the election on a high not seen since the heady days of Ed Broadbent and David Lewis. An increasingly polarized electorate finds resonance with many of the proclamations of the socialist group, though it’s to be determined if that translates into any significant increase in seats and influence for the NDP. Layton who has been a thorn in the side of the Martin people for over five months now will finally learn if his catchy phrases, cyber stalking and rhetorical splendor will attract new recruits to the good fight.
Steeped heavily in environmental concerns, educational issues and of course the always dominant health care debate, the trick will be to show fiscal responsibility can go hand in hand with needed services. The one point the Liberals will continue to hit the NDP on is a proclivity to being a tad loose with the national purse, mind you the examples of late from the Liberal ministers wouldn’t give many Canadians a feeling that the Liberals have any better idea as how to control finances.
Quebec will prove to be a pivotal battleground with it's treasure trove of seats, few of which will go Conservative, but many may not go Liberal. Quebec's feisty population may wish to give Mr. Martin a message as well. Standing to benefit is Gilles Duceppe the leader of Quebec’s Bloc Quebecois, he has been handed a life line by the scandalous revelations involving the Adscam situation. Having spent most of the last five months hammering away at the perception of Liberal corruption in the highest places, the Bloc now find themselves portrayed as the honest politicos of Quebec. A nice little bit of duplicity from a party that seems to want to take Quebec out of Canada, but only if they can collect their fully indexed Parliamentary pensions. Regardless they have found a receptive audience in Quebec, if only in a population secure in the knowledge that by returning Bloc MP’s to Parliament their concerns will once again find high priority in any government minority or majority.
And there is the real story of this election, just what make up will we have on the 29th of June. The concept of a majority government, long thought of as a sure bet after the November Liberal convention now seems somehow distant. It is still attainable but slipping away day by day. Instead, the pundits advise we’re now officially in minority government territory, most likely one lead by Paul Martin who presently holds an 8% lead over Stephen Harper. Of course that could all change overnight with a slip or two from the principles, a mistimed comment or party platform that sticks out glaringly as going down the wrong path and all could spin the other way.
The next five weeks will see promises, debates, dirty tricks and old fashioned riding politics played out from sea to sea to sea. And yet after five weeks of door knocking, verbal jousting and media saturation it will all come down to a simple X on a ballot. With that we shall pass judgment on the past and set a course for the future. All that’s left to learn is who is the Captain and will the crew be large or small. Let the fur fly, for the first time in a long, long time we may actually have a real race on our hands, democracy is always stronger when there’s a true choice to be made.