National Affairs Column: Anything could happen in this political marathon

by Tim Harper – Toronto Star

Historically, the dramatic visit of a prime minister to the Governor General foreshadows a political frenzy and sets off a gruelling sprint.

In the middle of a holiday weekend, Stephen Harper sounded the bell on a marathon, and the political dynamic ushered in on Sunday morning is unlike any we’ve ever seen.

In short, anyone who suggests they know what is going to happen over the next 11 weeks also has a bridge you’d be interested in.

Seat forecasts and polling data right now are mere summertime ice cream, because 11 weeks offers too many chances for the unexpected and too many opportunities to blow campaigns off course to properly handicap today.

For starters, it is likely fewer Canadians were engaged by this campaign kickoff than during elections past.

It is also likely that anything that appeared important Sunday morning will be forgotten by Oct. 19.

Yes, Conservative Leader Harper offered a disingenuous answer when asked to justify the costs of a 77-day marathon, somehow suggesting this unnecessarily long race is a favour to taxpayers.

Indeed, it was interesting that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, a man whose party has never had political power, refused to take questions, not only leaving Harper to justify the early election call but playing the role of front-runner who would not allow his message to be hijacked.

So, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau decided to fly to Vancouver instead of playing the traditional role of third party leader immediately standing in front of television cameras to respond to Harper? No one will be talking about this tomorrow, let alone Oct. 19. He got his TV time and there are probably more potential votes at the city’s Pride Parade than in a message-by-rote television appearance on a Sunday morning.

As expected, the prime minister, in his dark suit, blue tie and maple leaf lapel pin, used the Rideau Hall backdrop to solemnly play the “risk” card on the economy and security, reminding voters of the gravity of the decision before them.

For Harper, the danger posed by Mulcair and Trudeau comes in threes.

On the economy, they threaten “higher taxes, reckless spending, permanent deficits.”

On external threats, they threaten “political correctness, inexperienced governance or an ideological unwillingness to act.”

That will be an extremely difficult message to sustain through a campaign that will traverse three holiday weekends, almost three calendar months and two seasons.

Voter commitment is shallow. Swings are more likely. Since we last went to the polls federally, we have seen voter volatility in play – not theoretically through the polls – on the ground provincially in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

We need look back only to the 2011 campaign to see how this volatility can play out in a campaign of half this length.

The 2011 consensus, proved correct, was that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff didn’t have enough time to turn around negative perceptions. But we went into that campaign expecting a Harper-Ignatieff showdown.

Trudeau clearly has the toughest task ahead, but he does have time in 2015. No one can be written off so early and party membership and fundraising numbers suggest there is much more Liberal strength on the ground than four years ago.

The early 2011 story surrounding NDP leader Jack Layton was sparsely attended rallies and his inability to gain any momentum. That proved wrong.

So fixated were most of us on Harper versus Ignatieff that the voters realized Layton won the English-language debate before the pundits.

The test for the NDP this time is whether Mulcair has staying power – and the betting here is that he does – but the Conservative calculation is clearly that increased scrutiny will expose a leader of a party viewed with skepticism on the economy in uncertain economic times.

Yet the NDP has never entered a federal campaign with this many incumbents or this level of strength in the national polls. No longer will the NDP sneak up on anyone, but increased scrutiny is a happy price to pay for a party with a legitimate claim to be a government-in-waiting.

If this is an election about change, and it appears to be, then putting your man out in front of the cameras longer than necessary seems counterintuitive at best, even if it comes with a healthier war chest and an opportunity to blanket the airwaves and social media with your message.

Counterintuitive, but it’s folly to dismiss the strategy of a guy who has won.

So, looked at from the Conservative perspective, over 11 weeks, if Harper can lure 1 per cent of voters back into his fold per week, he can stand in victory again in late October.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright: 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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