David McLaughlin is a former Conservative Party chief of staff at the federal and provincial levels.
You would be forgiven if you thought Canadians were in the midst of provincial elections instead of a federal one.
Cameo appearances by the premiers of Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick in the campaign attacks of the Conservatives have occurred. Two other premiers in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have made their own campaign interventions to stir the pot. What's going on?
In a word: politics. In an explanation: Federal elections have become a series of regional campaigns, not a single national one.
As prime minister, Stephen Harper has made no secret of his disdain for gathering all the premiers together to meet on national issues such as energy or health care. He prefers to deal bilaterally on federal/provincial/territorial files with the responsible premier of the day. It suits his compartmentalized view of the federation, with each level of government sticking to its constitutional knitting. Or, as Mackenzie King might have put it, "co-operation if necessary, but not necessarily co-operation."
There has been one prime minister since 2006; there have been more than 30 different premiers. With more volatility than the price of oil, Mr. Harper might be forgiven for mangling the names of his opponents on the campaign trail. Except it was deliberate.
"Justin Wynne, Kathleen Trudeau," was how the Conservative Leader styled his Liberal opponents – note the plural – at a campaign event this week in Ontario. He did so to link the federal Liberal Party Leader with the provincial Liberal Premier. He wants to attach Ms. Wynne's declining popularity to Mr. Trudeau to drag his leadership numbers down. He did so by declaring her policies his, notably her plan for a provincial pension plan, which he decried as a new tax on Ontarians. Ms. Wynne, for her part, is directly inserting herself into the federal campaign making her a legitimate countertarget.
In newly NDP orange Alberta, Mr. Harper swiped Premier Rachel Notley's policies as economically risky. Ms. Notley, barely three months in office, was not the target; federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was. The Conservatives are seeking to attach the label of "risky" and "reckless" to the NDP to soften its support in that province.
In New Brunswick, a double-barrelled play is taking place. Rookie Liberal Premier Brian Gallant is attacked in Conservative advertising for his unpopular seniors' policy requiring a contribution from a senior's assets to determine eligibility and payment for seniors' care. At the same time, Mr. Mulcair's and Mr. Trudeau's pipeline positions are used to contrast with Mr. Gallant's to show those two federal leaders out of touch with the desires of New Brunswickers. That is a political two-fer!
Do voters in New Brunswick much care about the possible cost of an Ontario pension plan? Nope. Which explains that these attacks are really about animating voters regionally.
At least five elections, not one, are occurring across the country today. The uneven distribution of party strength – the NDP high in Quebec, the Conservatives leading in Alberta, for example – explains why different political messaging occurs in different parts of Canada. Drill down and the same phenomenon happens at the local riding level.
It is a political strategist's nightmare. There is no one opponent to focus on. It is akin to a game of political whack-a-mole.
By attacking provincial premiers, Mr. Harper is doing three things.
Firstly, they are a useful foil to animate his own base of voters, many of whom vote Conservative provincially as well. They eat these attacks up.
Secondly, he is focusing on provincial issues or preferences to underline his own national message, say on lower taxes, but more directly using provincial issues and premiers to spin regional messaging they expect to be more resonant with potential Conservative voters.
Thirdly, he is reinforcing the regionalized nature of this federal campaign. By focusing on Ontario issues – in this case pensions – Mr. Harper is playing down national topics in favour of a provincial focus. In a campaign of inches with marginal seats being won by less than 5 per cent of the vote, microtargeting of voters with messaging is essential to motivate a party's potential support. Taking on a premier can cut through to these voters.
Division of powers is enshrined in the Constitution. Divide and conquer is a long-established political maxim. The phenomenon of premiers in federal campaigns is not going away any time soon.