Yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched his election campaign for October, 2015.
Not even waiting for the House of Commons to actually sit, Mr. Harper dispensed with the strictures of Parliamentary procedure to proffer his own political messaging to a Conservative Party audience of MPs, staff, and supporters.
He was wise to do so. Parliament will matter less in its last session than it did in its first.
This time last year, it was all about a Throne Speech that followed an unusually long summer recess. That traditional laundry list recitation of 'government-speak' initiatives is long in writing but short in remembering. Indeed, the prime minister does not even get a voice in reading it.
Yesterday's at-length campaign speech was both far more soothing to supporters anxious about a persistent lag in the polls, and clear to voters about where the government is going. It reflects a communications pattern well-established by this government: go around, through, over, and under accepted political vehicles – like Parliament – to talk to voters directly, as unfiltered as possible.
Neither Mr. Harper, nor his opposite numbers, have much choice. The electoral clock is already ticking and positioning must begin. What they are saying tells us how they see themselves in the greater battle ahead.
For the Conservatives, it is about stability, security, and confidence. All wrapped around the economy, crime, and increasingly, foreign policy. The newly-positive, 'Better Off With Harper' party ad is all the proof needed, but the PM's declaration at the end of his speech that the Canadian flag stood for stability and security around the world (not, say, tolerance and openness) is the final branding. Advantage: it appeals to core and comfortable Conservative voters. Disadvantage: not new or change after almost ten years of office when more voters are inching this way.
For the Official Opposition New Democrats, it is about readiness to govern. Hence, detailed policy announcements. Nominally, the next-in-line party to form government, the NDP trails the other parties in third place. Should a change dynamic take root during the election campaign, its seeks to position itself to benefit by convincing voters they can be the government-in-waiting. Advantage: it buttresses Thomas Mulcair's likely declaration that he is running to be prime minister in 2015, not leader of the opposition. Disadvantage: public support has stalled around the NDP making this claim less credible if current standings hold in the campaign.
For the Justin Trudeau Liberals, it is about change, new leadership, and momentum. The third party in the House of Commons is the first party in public opinion. Parliament is never the strong suit of the smallest party (or of this leader) and Mr. Trudeau has unsurprisingly spent his time outside the House to build his party's brand back with only minimal policy pronouncements. Expect more of the same. Advantage: it capitalizes on current public opinion strength and momentum while minimizing policy exposure. Disadvantage: it leaves the party and leader vulnerable to challenge on inexperience and not ready to govern.
Common to each party's positioning is change – ready for it, in the case of the NDP; embodying it, in the case of the Liberals; questioning it, in the case of the Conservatives.
Every election campaign involves a choice about change. But 'change to what?' is always what it comes down to. Who gets that question answered on their terms will be our next prime minster.
Parliament is back, but really as backdrop. The fixed election date of October 19, 2015, has fixed the eyes of our politicians well beyond the flag atop the Peace Tower. It is seats in the country not sitting in the House that animates their horizons now.
Ironically, while Parliament symbolizes all that is yearned for by the leaders, it will occupy less and less of their time as the vote nears.