Federal politicians are turning the last days of Parliament into unabashed election campaigning, with all of the major parties seeking to make tactical gains before the Commons rises next week.
If there was any remaining pretense that the country's legislative business was still the parties' primary focus, that was washed away in two hours of election positioning on Tuesday.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was up first, pledging to chase cynicism from politics with an open-government platform. At the podium of the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto, Thomas Mulcair tried to reassure voters that his surging NDP has middle-class, middle-of-the-road economic policies. Meanwhile, Conservative Justice Minister Peter MacKay was doing what his colleagues have been doing all week: tabling a bill that has no hope of passing.
All were seeking to take advantage of the last days of this political season to reposition themselves for the fall election. There are two fights going on: whether there should be change and who represents change. And each party used tactics reflecting their place in the race.
It's a race that has changed, but hasn't solidified. An Angus Reid Institute online survey released Tuesday found the Liberals and NDP had swapped places since December. Now the NDP is on top, with 36 per cent, and the Liberals in third, at 23 per cent. The Conservatives are essentially unchanged at 33 per cent.
Stephen Harper's Conservatives, nine years into power, have to fight against time and the notion they've been in power long enough. Mr. Trudeau's Liberals, who once topped polls, are trying to get on the front foot again. And the NDP's Mr. Mulcair, who suddenly has the momentum, is using the new attention to reassure voters he's not a risk. On Tuesday, all three parties pursued those goals.
For the Conservatives, the tactics appeared an odd choice: Mr. MacKay's tabling of legislation to stiffen penalties for deadly drunk drivers is standard Tory tough-on-crime policy. But the bill is doomed since it can't possibly be passed before Parliament is slated to break on Tuesday. And this isn't the only one. The Conservatives have introduced 10 bills in June that will never even be debated in the Commons.
They're doing it because they've been in power nine years. Voters rarely believe politicians' promises, but when a government that's been in office for a decade promises to pass a law if elected to another term, voters immediately ask why they haven't done it before. But promise seems more substantial as a bill, tabled in Parliament – now it's not just an election promise, it's legislation. It's supposed to sidestep voter cynicism while sending the message that the government is still doing new things.
The opposition parties, however, are pushing the idea Mr. Harper's played out the string. Mr. Trudeau has tried to embody the visceral notion of change – younger, more hopeful and just different.
But he's had a miserable eight months on the defensive, on Mr. Harper's issues and not his: the military mission against the Islamic State, the government's security bill and so on. On Tuesday, he tried to change the conversation to his issues.
His open-government platform was a collection of policies to change the workings of Parliament and government oversight. Apart from a few eye-catching points, such as eliminating the first-past-the-post voting system, it was mostly Ottawa inside-baseball. But that wasn't the point. Together, it is supposed to spell a contrast of styles with Mr. Harper, cast as secretive, cynical and dictatorial.
The trouble for Mr. Trudeau is that Mr. Mulcair is currently besting him as the agent of change. Everyone is taking note of the NDP and it's noteworthy what he did with the attention. He didn't propose new things. He tried to convince the voters who are flirting with him that he's not a risky commitment.
At the Economic Club, Mr. Mulcair talked about fiscal responsibility and reread a book of economic policies that might fit in a Conservative budget. It was repetition, but people are paying more attention. It was unremarkable economics and that was the goal. While the Conservatives seek to hold back the urge for change and Mr. Trudeau is trying to regain the banner of real change, the surging Mr. Mulcair chose to tell voters he won't be too much change.