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Jeffrey Simpson

Flaring their nostrils, pawing the ground, seeking a breakthrough Add to ...

An Angus Reid poll this month found that “most Canadians are indifferent to monarchy and the royal wedding” (editors across Canada, please take note!) – which is probably what the pollster would find if Canadians were asked about the resumption of Parliament next week.

The political parties have been flaring their nostrils and pawing the ground since Christmas, readying themselves for a session that will sound like one preceding an election.

Attack ads have flooded the airwaves. Prime Minister Stephen Harper hit the trail making more spending announcements while simultaneously preaching restraint. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff visited ridings his party believes it can snatch from rivals. NDP Leader Jack Layton gave press conferences and speeches. The Bloc Québécois, as if on cue, produced a pre-session list of demands for Quebec totalling $5-billion.

Posturing goes with politics; constant posturing goes with minority governments. As has been frequently noted, the governing Conservatives are on permanent election footing, what with their fundraising, targeting of messages and promises, spin-doctoring and those attack ads. The other parties, with fewer means, try to do likewise, positioning themselves as best they can.

For five years, the distinguishing characteristic of Canadian politics has been no change in the relative standing of the parties. For all the manoeuvrings, none has budged in public opinion. Now, as they contemplate an election, each thinks a breakthrough might be at hand.

The Conservatives know a national breakthrough is impossible, so they’ve targeted a couple of dozen ridings, mostly suburban, where they believe the twin message of “tough on crime” and “low taxes” will carry the day. They hope, too, that their assiduous wooing of ethnic communities will help, as it well might. If they win those targeted ridings, they believe a majority government is within their grasp.

In Quebec, the graveyard of their dreams, the Conservatives are back to spending money in search for political gain. The twin tests ahead are whether to fork over billions for Quebec’s having partially harmonized its sales tax with the GST, and whether to pay political extortion money for a Quebec City hockey arena for which there is no team and for a Winter Olympics bid that, even under the best of circumstances, won’t happen for at least two decades. So targeted are the party’s efforts in central Quebec that its ads are directed against Montreal.

At the heart of the Conservative campaign, of course, will be Mr. Harper, who’s at the heart of everything this government does. He is what he is: respected and admired by his supporters, not much liked by others. He’s a polarizer. An election campaign won’t change his image no matter how many sweaters he wears.

Another Angus Reid poll indicated that, after five years in office, somewhat more Canadians held negative views of the Harper government than positive ones. The overall results were “mixed,” which is what you’d expect in a democracy after five years.

The Liberals have two big challenges. First, Michael Ignatieff hasn’t resonated positively with voters – it’s desperately hard to change a hardened reputation. By any fair measure, he’s better since his cross-Canada tour last summer. His challenge, then, is to surprise Canadians by being more effective than they expect, a very difficult task.

Liberals have to drive home the message that, if you really want Mr. Harper and his government gone, there’s only one way to accomplish that: Vote Liberal. It’s a message that hasn’t worked in the past two elections. Third time lucky?

As for the NDP, tough economic times are supposed to assist parties that favour activist government, since more people need help from government. Instead, tough times seem to be hurting leftish parties. The old NDP dilemma remains: Effective NDP attacks against the government risk driving some voters to the Liberals.

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