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Prime Minister Stephen Harper gestures as he is questioned about coalitions during a media availability following a campaign speech in Brampton, Ont., Sunday March 27, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper gestures as he is questioned about coalitions during a media availability following a campaign speech in Brampton, Ont., Sunday March 27, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

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Dominance of coalition chatter betrays an embarrassing truth Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff has ruled it out. Gilles Duceppe says it's a lie. Jack Layton isn't biting.

And yet the apparent threat of a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition has become "the" issue in the early going of federal election campaign No. 41.

It's all coalition, all the time - out on the campaign trail with the leaders, among reporters thrusting microphones in the candidates' faces and in the social media, where coalition chatter is dominating election Twitter feeds.

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In the absence of real debate about serious issues, the false premise of a coalition has filled the campaign vacuum.

The talk is so deafening that voters might as well stay home May 2 because the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion - if you believe Conservative Leader Stephen Harper. He said the word "coalition" 21 times Sunday as he stumped in Brampton, Ont., casting the looming vote as a choice between the stability of the Conservatives and a dangerous coalition.

So why are the media biting so willingly and hungrily on Mr. Harper's tactical line?

In two words: It's easy. It's a story with tension. And in the Twitter age, the media, pundits and political spin masters are all looking over their shoulder, in real time, to assess what issues and trends are gaining traction. It's a very powerful echo chamber, where a single issue quickly dominates debate.

Suanne Kelman, interim chair of Ryerson University's journalism school, said she's baffled that the media are so fixated on an issue that probably doesn't resonate far beyond Ottawa.

"Reporters live in a rarefied world and they can become quite separated from ordinary voters," she warned. "The media have to watch out or people will get fed up and stop reading."

The media are drawn to the issue because it's a classic he-said, she-said story, which is a lot less taxing than talking about the big issues facing the country, said Christopher Waddell, director of Carleton University's school of journalism and communication and a former Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail.

"It's an easy story to do," Mr. Waddell explained. "All you have to do is take what people say and repeat it. You don't have to actually think about tougher issues and tougher questions."

There is a whole range of issues the media could - and should - be exploring in this election, he suggested. There's Canada's thorny role in two wars and the shaky economy. There are allegations of Mr. Harper's roughshod treatment of Parliament and questions about the real cost of some major programs, including fighter jets and new prisons.

The media might also want to push the opposition leaders a lot harder about just how fundamentally differently they would run the country than Mr. Harper, Mr. Waddell said.

The coalition issue is more than specious, it's the wrong postelection scenario to ponder, pollster and Environics founder Michael Adams argued.

"It seems to me the media should be speculating about a possible Conservative majority, not a Liberal-led coalition," Mr. Adams said. "The Liberals would have to do a lot better than their current numbers suggest before talk of a coalition would be warranted."

An Ipsos-Reid poll last week, for example, showed Mr. Harper with a remarkable 32-percentage-point lead over Mr. Ignatieff as the "best" choice for prime minister. Over all, the poll showed the Conservatives at 43-per-cent support, in majority-government territory, with the Liberals far behind at 24 per cent. The NDP enjoyed 16-per-cent support, while the Bloc Québécois had 41 per cent of the vote in Quebec.

Coalition chatter is driving the early election debate among the leading political Twitter sources, according to Mark Blevis, a digital public relations strategist at consultant Full Duplex in Ottawa. Coalition tweets account for 1,986 updates or nearly 15 per cent of identified election Twitter traffic of an estimated 1.6 million impressions - or possible views - so far, he said. That includes original Twitter messages plus rebroadcasting of those messages via so-called retweets and replies.

"That's the hot-button issue this weekend," Mr. Blevis said. "It's the opening message of Harper in the campaign. It's an issue that people can understand and it's a great issue to incite interest in the election."

The 15 per cent of Twitter election traffic may be understated because, Mr. Blevis said, his survey covers only messages that specifically mention the word "coalition."

And while the media and Twitter users seem fixated on the theme, it's not at all clear average Canadians care much about the prospect, or not, of a coalition.

"It may be an issue as the insiders go back and forth on Twitter, but it's not really something average Canadians are spending a lot of attention on at the moment," Carleton's Mr. Waddell said.

Jaideep Mukerji, vice-president of Vision Critical/Angus Reid, said recent polling by the company showed Canadians aren't particularly disturbed by the possibility of a Liberal-NDP coalition. But they do fear a role for the separatist Bloc in any coalition.

"It remains to be seen how lasting of an issue it's going to be over a campaign," Mr. Mukerji said. "I'm not sure how much more mileage Mr. Harper is going to get out of that particular attack line."

By categorically denying he's plotting a coalition with NDP and the Bloc, Mr. Mukerji said, "Ignatieff has probably done his best he can to get this back on to his issues."

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