By Geoffrey Stevens
If the universe continues to unfold the way it has been unfolding in recent days, the election on Monday will indeed be “historic” – a label some commentators are already pinning on it.
Pending Monday’s verdict, let’s just say the election, so exhilarating to some and devastating to others, is already notable on two scores.
The first is the surge that has carried the New Democratic Party to second place in the polls in the closing days of the campaign. Led by Quebec, the surge has confounded the presumed “experts” and upset the apple carts of all the other parties.
Next, this election is notable for a series of miscalculations by Prime Minister Stephen Harper – miscalculations that could not only deny him a majority, but could cost him his government and even his leadership.
Others may have longer lists, but my tally is six Conservative assumptions gone awry.
First, he assumed that if he manipulated the opposition parties into defeating his government – and that’s what he did – the public, which always tells pollsters it doesn’t want elections, would be incensed and would take its anger out on what he called the opposition “coalition.” It didn’t play out that way, despite waves of Conservative attack ads.
Second, he assumed the public didn’t really care about issues of ethics and transparency and would embrace his contention that the Commons resolution that found his government in contempt of Parliament was simply a cynical political trick that did not deserve to be taken seriously. He was wrong about that.
Third, he thought he could rebrand the federal government as the “Harper Government” and parlay this personalized entity into a majority government. What he didn’t understand was that while many Canadians may respect his accomplishments, they don’t like him enough to trust him with a majority.
Fourth, he put all his policy eggs in the economy basket, assuming Canadians would accept his argument that the Conservatives have done a better job of managing the recovery than any government anywhere in the whole wide world. In fact, what people were telling pollsters was that they were more concerned about the health care system than the economy – an issue that played to the advantage of the NDP and Liberals.
Fifth, Harper, assuming Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals were his only real enemy, underestimated the NDP and misjudged the appeal of Jack Layton. Viewing Layton through a conservative ideological prism, Harper saw just another shallow socialist politician, and not what Layton really is: a smart, resourceful and focussed leader that Harper needed to worry about.
In fact, as Layton’s leadership numbers climbed past Harper’s, people told pollsters they find the NDP leader open, approachable and trustworthy – not qualities universally ascribed to the Prime Minister.
While Ignatieff came across as a same-old, same-old Liberal and the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe as dated and increasingly irrelevant – a living anachronism to Quebec’s soft nationalists – Layton appeared fresh, intriguing – and maybe worth a chance.
Sixth and final, Harper based his strategy on the assumption of a voter turnout as low or even lower than the record low of 58.8 per cent in the 2008 election. His campaign was designed to suppress public interest by avoiding controversy, minimizing exposure to media questioning, appearing in controlled settings (glorified photo-ops), and reciting the same set (and boring) speech at every stop.
But something was happening out there. The public got interested. Crowds at all-candidate meetings increased. A record number of Canadians tuned in to the leader debates on television. And more than 2 million Canadians went out to vote at the advance polls over Easter weekend – an increase of 35 per cent over 2008.
The advance polls are usually a harbinger of the turnout to come on election day itself. If there are long lines at the polling stations on Monday, the Conservatives will fear the worst. And Stephen Harper will have only himself to blame if the day goes badly for him and his government.
(published April 29, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org