The Election: Day 24

Stephen Harper chose to end the pre-Christmas campaign phase with a major announcement on positioning Canada to assert its sovereignty in the Arctic. The announcement was linked to recent stories that American submarines have been venturing into Canadian waters without Ottawa's permission. Harper said protecting and defending national sovereignty is Ottawa's most important duty, and his government would invest in the military to ensure that would happen.

"Paul Martin talks eloquently about defending national sovereignty, but the reality hasn't matched the rhetoric," Harper said about the Liberal leader. "When it comes to the United States, Mr. Martin says he calls them as he sees them, but when it comes to American passage through Canada, he doesn't actually see anything. You don't defend national sovereignty with flags, cheap election rhetoric and advertising campaigns. You need forces on the ground, ships in the sea and proper surveillance."

Harper said the Conservatives will build three heavy-duty, armed icebreakers as well as a new port for them near Iqualuit.

The estimated total cost of the Conservatives' Arctic commitments is about $5.3 billion over five years.

Martin attempted to dismiss Harper's platform, saying it has been government policy for a long time. But his rationale was rather weak. He claimed the plan was too expensive and questioned the need to address any threats in the North.

The Conservative plan includes the following elements:

Station three new armed naval heavy icebreakers, to be made in Canada, in the area of Iqaluit, which will include 500 regular force personnel for crews and support and will be capable of carrying troops.

Build a new military/civilian deep-water docking facility in the Iqaluit area.

Establish a new Arctic National Sensor System for northern waters, which will include underwater surveillance technologies such as listening posts to monitor foreign submarines and ships.

Build a new Arctic army training centre in the area of Cambridge Bay on the Northwest Passage, staffed by an estimated 100 regular force personnel.

Station new fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft in Yellowknife.

Provide eastern and western Arctic air surveillance by stationing new long-range uninhabited aerial vehicle (UAV) squadrons at CFB Goose Bay and CFB Comox to provide continuous Arctic and ocean surveillance and patrol.

Revitalize the Canadian Rangers by recruiting up to 500 additional Rangers and increasing their level of training, activity, and equipment.

Provide an army emergency response capability for the Arctic through the new airborne battalion and airlift capacity stationed at CFB Trenton.

Once again Harper demonstrated that the Conservatives have a well-thought out and comprehensive platform in this campaign. Increasingly this past week Paul Martin has been looking flustered and off-key as he responds to Harper's inceasingly assertive thrusts.

Meanwhile Jack Layton went to Edmonton to take on the perceived "enemy" of non-profit health care, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. Back off medicare, Layton warned Klein. Layton said he won't let the federal government or the provinces bring in private health care.

Singling out Klein, Layton said, "I came here to deliver a message, one that he needs to hear. Back off! You are not going to destroy public health care. New Democrats won't let you. Make no mistake about it."

"We now have a Liberal prime minister who seems to think that Lester Pearson is just the name of an airport. Paul Martin's Liberals are so busy playing the political games, they've forgotten what they believe in. Under Paul Martin, the Liberals have lost their values and broken so many promises they don't even bother to pretend anymore," Layton said.

He then turned to the Conservatives, describing them as "today's Liberals in a hurry."

"Stephen Harper wants to privatize faster, pollute faster, integrate our economy into the United States faster," he said.

The latest Strategic Counsel poll indicates that the gap between the Bloc and the Liberals is widening in Quebec and the race nationally is tightening.

Liberal: 33%
Conservative: 29%
NDP: 17%
Bloc Québécois: 15%
Green Party: 6%

In Ontario, the Liberal lead over the Tories - which reached 18 percentage points just over a week ago, has narrowed to 7 points

The latest SES tracking poll also shows the national gap between the Liberals and the Conservatives is narrowing.

Rumours abound on the internet that the Liberals will mount an aggressive series of attack ads after Christmas. You can see a preview of planned ads at Stephen Taylor's blog. It's worth a view.

Today's Toronto Star carries an incisive article by James Travers showing that there is little difference between Harper (Liberal-lite) and Martin (a Conservative with a winning smile). Travers speculates:

"If the election-day consensus is that Harper is Liberal-lite and Martin just a conservative with a winning smile, the hunger for change will outweigh the risks and this prime minister will be chased from power."

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