Harper's Campaign Disciplined and Focused

In a typical week in politics, news that police were investigating a federal department would cue an outburst from any opposition leader.

Harper's Campaign Disciplined and Focused

In a typical week in politics, news that police were investigating a federal department would cue an outburst from any opposition leader. Imagine the din in Question Period if the House had been sitting when the RCMP revealed that it was probing how the Finance department handled its sensitive tax policy move on income trusts. But the midway point of a tight election campaign is not a typical moment, and Stephen HARPER's reaction was far from a QP-style tirade. Rather than lashing out at the Liberals, or even demanding that Finance Minister Ralph Goodale step down during the investigation, the Conservative leader adopted a weary, what-else-is-new air. "It's the final nail," Harper said when asked about the investigation. "Ralph Goodale can stay on and run around in his limousine until Jan. 23. What's important is that he and his government are run out of office."

His message: this is Liberal business-as-usual and that won't change as long as they hold power. Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research Group, the firm conducting the Maclean's Canada 20/20 panel, a series of weekly Internet opinion surveys during the campaign, says Harper played it just about perfectly. "If he had gone on a harangue, it would have reinforced his too-negative image, which is already a problem for him," Lyle said. Harper has been fighting the angry-right-wing-guy factor throughout the campaign. Last week, 42 per cent of the 2,817 panellists who participated in the 20/20 survey, said the Tories are "too negative," compared with just 19 per cent who pin that label on the Liberals.

That means when an opportunity like the RCMP investigation arises, Harper needs to be careful about how he exploits it. Rather than taking the opportunity to vent, he needs to more gently nudge voters to see the news as another reason to think about changing the party in power. Harper is vulnerable whenever the campaign tone turns testy, but he stands to gain when a hankering for change is in the air. Asked which party is best able to bring real change to Ottawa, 30 per cent of 20/20 panellists give the nod to the Conservatives, and only 10 per cent to the Liberals. Media coverage of the RCMP investigation will benefit Conservatives most if it fuels a time-for-a-change sentiment. "This is a gift for them," Lyle said. "It's a news hook that allows them to make that real change case."

The good news for the Liberals is that the story broke in the quiet week between Christmas and New Year's Day. The RCMP confirmed they were looking into the Finance department's actions in a letter to Winnipeg MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the NDP Finance critic whose complaint apparently helped prompt the investigation. Wasylycia-Leis had asked the RCMP about a flurry of trading in shares of income trusts, and stocks related to them, on Nov. 23. The suspicious spike, which had been widely noticed, took place only hours before Goodale held a news conference to say he would not be imposing a tax on income trusts, as some had feared.

Still, the news of the investigation shifted the focus - yet again - in a direction Liberals had to find uncomfortable. While last year's campaign featured Harper on the defensive on too many days, it's Martin this time around who is being forced to bob and weave. First, one of his closest aides, Scott Reid, remarked that Canadian parents might blow a proposed Tory child care support payment on "beer and popcorn." Then a senior Ontario Liberal, Mike Klander, tastelessly paired a photo of Toronto NDP candidate Olivia Chow, wife of NDP Leader Jack Layton, with one of a chow chow dog on a website. Those are the sorts of embarrassing misfires Liberals used to mock Tories for making. And then there is Harper's strategy of doggedly announcing new policies, large and small, day after day. While methodically laying down the planks of his platform hasn't been exciting, it has meant that most of the time Harper is earning respectful, policy-centred coverage.

That unspectacular, disciplined campaign appears to be making a difference. The 20/20 Canada panel, by charting shifts in panellists' support for parties, shows a small but significant swing to the Tories. Of 1,669 panellists who completed the survey in the first week of the campaign and also in the fourth week, about one in six had changed their party preference. Looking at those switchers, Conservatives picked up more votes than they lost from both the Liberal and NDP camps, and also picked up votes from the pool of panellists who were undecided at the outset. In particular, the Tories gained a full per cent more than they lost in exchanges with the Liberals. One per cent may not sound like much, but this is a race of millimetres. Outside Quebec, where the Bloc Québécois is far ahead, the race is too close to call. In the rest of Canada, the 20/20 panel pegged Liberal support at 37 per cent, the Tories at 36 per cent and the NDP at 19.6 per cent.

Those Innovative Research numbers, along with other polls, show the lead Liberals enjoyed outside Quebec at the beginning of the campaign has evaporated. That suggests Martin can't afford to let the Tories keep setting the agenda as the race to the Jan. 23 vote enters its second phase. Late last week, the Prime Minister signalled he hopes to shift the focus to "values." More specifically, he said: "We'll be talking a lot about families, about what we believe families require." On that theme, though, the 20/20 poll suggests Martin doesn't enjoy an obvious edge. Asked which party would do the best job on child care, for instance, 27 per cent picked the Liberals, 26 per cent favoured the Tories and 29 per cent leaned toward the NDP.

But Martin also highlighted another main theme - the spectre of a possible third referendum on Quebec's future sometime in the next few years. "We'll be talking about national unity," he said, "and the great battle in which we are engaged as a nation." That's the sort of full-blown rhetoric Harper has been avoiding in his low-key, incremental campaign. Martin has good reason to think he can beat Harper if voters come to believe their country is at stake. Asked which leader loves Canada most, 33 per cent in the 20/20 panel said Martin, just 16 per cent Harper. This could be turning into a contest between a scrambling incumbent who needs to turn up the emotional volume, and a patient challenger who must keep things calm.

Maclean's January 6, 2006