When Justin Trudeau got onstage in Markham Friday night and told his audience of Ontario Liberals that someone had asked him if the election campaign had already begun, they all laughed. "I think you know the answer," he said.
It's obvious to the parties. The election year – Canada's first, made inevitable by the fixed election date law that sets an October, 2015, vote – is here.
This week marks the opening of the election Parliament, the session that will build toward Prime Minister Stephen Harper's real election platform, in a budget, then segue to a sprint to the official campaign. And a little urgency has come from opposition fears that Mr. Harper might still call a snap spring election.
Mr. Trudeau has been touring towns like he's already on the hustings, while the Conservatives and NDP, with bigger caucuses, chastized him for skipping Parliament and ridiculed him as an empty suit. Now it's those parties, behind in the polls, who plan to emulate some of his tactics, and who will really move up the campaigning.
While the Tories long ago imported permanent political advertising to Canada, it's the NDP that really fired the starting gun on the election year, fearing it might fall out of the race. At 19-per-cent support, according to an average of polls by threehundredeight.com, the party feared being written off as unable to take power long before the official writ period.
So Thomas Mulcair will take to the road more, too, and has already launched a slogan, Change That's Ready, with a shot at Mr. Trudeau as callow. And he's unveiling his election platform early, promising a child-care plan and a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage.
The political goal isn't really to have Mr. Mulcair define NDP policies. The policies are to define the leader. Most people outside Quebec have a vague sense of Mr. Mulcair – and voters make their choice around the leader. The policies are to sharpen the image: a child-care plan, for example, is to say he cares about parents and children.
Mr. Harper, meanwhile, knows what he has to talk about – and it can't be election promises. Prime ministers have advantages, but after a decade in power, their promises tend to be greeted with a question: Why haven't you done this already?
That's why Mr. Harper's election platform has to be rooted in what he's done in government, and the main chapter will be the budget. With surpluses, he can offer new initiatives, and big tax cuts – and dare opponents to say they'd undo them.
Mr. Harper's aides say he'll get out of Ottawa more, too. But Finance Minister Joe Oliver already offered a taste of the election theme, crafted from government, last week, when he announced a credit to reduce EI premiums for small businesses. The message is that the rewards of fiscal prudence are going to be reaped, and used to strengthen the economy.
The Conservative Party can use its money edge to advertise, as they've already attacked "in over his head" Justin Trudeau for promising to legalize pot. And the PM controls levers in Parliament he can use to tell voters he's the leader with experience, and the issue is the economy – like a tax-cutting budget.
Mr. Trudeau insists he's itching for that kind of election. "It's not going to be about pot. It's not going to be about who has the nicest hair. The next election is going to be about the economy, because that's what's concerning Canadians," he told students at Fanshawe College in London, Ont., on Thursday.
While his opponents attack him for lack of detail, he has set a pretty clear frame for the election: He'll attack Mr. Harper as out of touch with the situation of the middle class and insist tax cuts won't help – instead offering what he insists are pro-growth policies, such as spending on infrastructure and education.
While Mr. Mulcair releases his platform to define his persona, Mr. Trudeau will build on hype with his own campaign gambit, an autobiography. The third party leader, ahead in the polls, said Saturday he'll wait till the official campaign to release his platform. It's his opponents who will show their cards first.