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'Reckless coalition' strategy is Harper's own

Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he makes a campaign stop in Burnaby, B.C. on Sunday March 27, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper's loud warning that voters must choose between a majority Conservative government and a "reckless" Liberal-led coalition reveals a strategy he personally conceived and is determined to emphasize throughout this election campaign.

The Liberals are convinced the Tory Leader is destroying his own election hopes in the process.

And the Canadian voter trying to make sense of it all might be wondering why the second day of the election campaign was dominated by an issue the opposition is saying will never become a reality.

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Mr. Harper pushed his campaign team to put the majority-or-coalition issue front-and-centre, according to someone close to the campaign, because he personally believes those are the only possible outcomes. Polls show that most voters oppose the idea of a so-called "coalition of losers," or of any party governing with the consent of the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois.

The Conservatives hope the coalition question will develop into a much-coveted "wedge" issue - a debate that polarizes support into two camps, with one party on one side and all the other parties together on the other.

But a senior Liberal strategist, speaking on background, said the Conservatives have forgotten the first rule of politics: that hope beats fear.

The Conservative Leader's attack on the opposition parties dominated a Sunday speech in Brampton, Ont.

"They don't think they need to win this election, just hold us to another minority and they will move with lightning speed to recreate and impose their reckless coalition on Canadians," Mr. Harper told a gathering of about 700, many of them of South Asian background. Brampton is a key battleground of Toronto-area Liberal seats that the Tories are targeting.

Mr. Harper invoked the word "coalition" 21 times in his address.

Campaign advisers say the choice of either a Conservative majority or a Liberal-led coalition is a black-and-white one that voters must confront.

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"It's a very clear choice," said Senator Marjorie LeBreton, a Tory campaign adviser.

But the Liberals believe that Mr. Ignatieff put the issue to bed on the weekend when he ruled out the possibility of a coalition.

"I was very clear right out of the gate," Mr. Ignatieff told reporters Sunday in Montreal. "We're ruling out a coalition."

Actually, it was Mr. Ignatieff's lack of clarity when reporters raised the question last Friday that opened the crack that the Conservatives are trying to widen.

Since then, Mr. Ignatieff has repeatedly ruled out any possibility of forming a coalition with NDP Leader Jack Layton or Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, regardless of the electoral outcome.

That matters not to Mr. Harper. In his speech Sunday, he compared Canada's relatively mild downturn during the recent global recession while he was prime minister with the prospect of an alliance backed by the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

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"Imagine giving a role of government to a party committed to the breakup of the country," Mr. Harper warned.

The opposition returned fire by pointing out that Mr. Harper co-authored a letter to then-governor-general Adrienne Clarkson in 2004 that asked her to consider allowing the opposition parties, "who together constitute a majority in the House," to try their hand at governing, in the event Paul Martin's minority Liberal government was defeated.

"When Mr. Harper says the party that finishes second can't be prime minister, he's lying," Bloc Québécois Leader said on the campaign trail Sunday. "When he says it's anti-democratic, it's the opposite of what he wrote in 2004. He's trying to build his majority on a lie."

Mr. Harper in turn rejected comparisons with the 2004 episode, noting he had explicitly rejected forming a coalition, but instead had planned to govern with the support of other parties on a vote-by-vote basis.

That's not how Mr. Layton remembers it, however. A coalition "certainly was one of the options that was discussed around the table," during the negotiations that led up to the letter, he recalled, accusing Mr. Harper of "false outrage."

Yet voter memories remain fresh of the attempt by former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion to force Mr. Harper from office in 2008 by forming a coalition with the NDP supported by the Bloc.

Mr. Harper only saved himself by proroguing Parliament - temporarily shutting it down - and rushing through a massive stimulus spending package that helped cool Liberal enthusiasm for the coalition.

Those who know Mr. Harper say he is convinced his rivals won't hesitate to team up again.

The leaders will continue to fan out across the country Monday. Mr. Harper will be in Alberta and B.C. Monday; Mr. Ignatieff is heading for Toronto and Mississauga; Mr. Layton will be in Saskatchewan; Mr. Duceppe is campaigning in the suburbs around Montreal; and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May will be in Sidney, B.C.

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