Harper majority slipping away

After the easy ride of Week One, notwithstanding his minor warroom gaffes, Stephen Harper's warm and fuzzy campaign is running into rough water this second week. He is being hit harder by both the NDP and the Liberals in ads and speeches. Dion is finally on the offensive. The economic downturn in the US and to some extent in Canada may become Harper's Achilles' Heel.

As I mentioned yesterday Harper's Conservatives do not have a good fiscal track record so far, taking the country from record surpluses to the verge of a deficit. Like John McCain, Stephen Harper likes to say that the economic fundamentals are strong. He must be getting his advice from Jeff Rubin of the CIBC. Dion hit hard on the economic theme today in Halifax, pointing to the Liberal financial track record during the Chretien/Martin years.

The fact is that a deepening Canadian housing market slump, plus a flood of other worrisome economic reports on both sides of the border, added to fears of a widening U.S. financial market crisis. Canadian home sales tumbled nearly 20 per cent last month from a year earlier and prices were off more than five per cent. Canadians also cut their purchases of new cars in July. And jobs continue to disappear in southern Ontario. This provides potent ground for the Liberals to till in the coming weeks.

Most recent Strategic Counsel polling indicates the Conservatives are losing their lead in swing Ontario ridings, with their lead shrinking to its lowest level so far this campaign in these key battlegrounds. The Cons now have only a five-point lead over the Liberals in 20 Ontario ridings where the race was tightest in the last election or by-election, down from the 19-point lead the Conservatives enjoyed over the Liberals in those battleground ridings Sept. 10-13 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080916.welectionpoll17/BNStory/politics/home ). Their chances of winning a majority are slipping away.

This campaign is only beginning. Stay tuned.


Election 2008: Day Nine

There was one encouraging sign for the Liberals today. The Harris-Decima daily rolling poll showed a softening of support for the Conservatives, dropping from 41 to 38 %. The Liberals picked up three points. The spread between the two parties is still considerable. As I suggested earlier, the Liberal goal should be to hold Harper to another minority. This would allow them an opportunity to retool and pick a new leader before the next election.

Stephane Dion's Green Shift, while supported by a lot of environmentally minded citizens, is in danger of becoming an albatross around the Liberals' neck. Dion seems unable to explain it clearly and concisely in a way that would successfully deflect Harper's attacks.

After this weekend's meltdown in the US, the economy is likely to loom front and center as an election issue. The Conservatives are trying to sell themselves as prudent fiscal managers. This conflicts with their record since Harper took the reins of power. The slaying of the deficit and the creation of large surpluses occurred during the Chretien/Martin years. Since 2006 Harper has squandered the surplus and left us on the brink of a return to deficit financing. The Liberals should be emphasizing that record of good financial management.

The Libs should also be showcasing their bench strength in contrast to Harper's one-man show. Where are Iggy, Rae, Dryden, Goodale etc?

Today Dion was in Newfoundland attempting to capitalize on Danny Williams' ABC campaign. He announced $420 million for fisheries programs, most of it aimed at offsetting the carbon tax. But even there he was placed on the defensive when former Liberal provincial/federal cabinet minister John Efford was shown on national television stating that everyone he talks to is concerned about the proposed carbon tax. Nonetheless, the Liberals have some hope of picking up a seat or two there, with Loyola Hearn and Norm Doyle having abandoned the Conservative ship in the face of Danny's onslaught. The NDP might have a chance in St. John's East where Jack Harris, former provincial NDP leader, is running.

Meanwhile Jack Layton was busy in Halifax where he made a billion-dollar promise to fix the health care system once and for all. He promised that an NDP government would spend an average of $200-million a year to increase training spaces and help provinces expand their medical schools. The aim would be to boost the number of new nurses and doctors by 50 per cent to address a shortage that has left five million Canadians without a family doctor. Certainly a worthy goal, if he ever had a chance to pursue it.


Election 2008: Day Eight

Harper and Dion took the day off. Layton campaigned in Gatineau and Elizabeth May appeared on Cross-country Check-Up with Rex Murphy.

Pundits were busy assessing the first week of the campaign. Jeff Simpson of the Globe and Mail gave the nod to Harper as the week's winner:

"Distractions aside, the Conservatives know what they are doing, how to do it, whom they are targeting and with what messages. The campaign tour runs with paramilitary precision. Local candidates, as in previous elections, are prevented from speaking to journalists. The whole campaign revolves around Mr. Harper, as does the entire government. Ministers are pygmies in the campaign, as most of them are in the government, and it would appear nothing will change after the election, since the Conservatives have attracted almost no new candidates of great stature. As they paraded out their new candidates across the country, the most common reaction was: Who?
The Conservatives are trying (thus far successfully) to defang Mr. Harper among swing voters. The entire Conservative strategic effort – in which policy, speechmaking and advertising reinforce each other – is to make Canadians, or more precisely middle-class Canadians, feel comfortable with the idea of Mr. Harper and the Conservative Party as middle-of-the-road, pragmatic, non-ideological."


The latest Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll indicates that the Conservatives have solidified a substantial lead among Canadian voters, thanks at least in part to a lack of confidence in Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion. Those polled supported the Conservatives 40%, Liberals 26%, NDP 15%,Green party 9%, and Bloc Québécois 8%. One interesting note is that Jack Layton remained the most popular of the five leaders, with 53 per cent of respondents registering a positive impression and just 33 per cent a negative one. This explains stories today suggesting that the Tories will turn their guns on Layton next week.

Harper's campaign will focus next on Ontario and Quebec where he needs to win seats to obtain the much desired but unstated goal of a majority. The Bloc still has a slight edge over the Cons in Quebec. Today the Conservatives unveiled new ads taking aim at Duceppe. The Liberals unveiled new ads featuring speakers other than Dion, taking aim at the Conservatives' negative campaign.

I have not been attempting to summarize the promises made by the various parties this past week. A handy summary of promises so far can be found at CTV.ca ( http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20080911/election2008_promises_080913/20080913?s_name=election2008&no_ads= ).

For those interested in projected seat outcomes based on the polls so far, I recommend checking the Calgary Grit ( http://calgarygrit.blogspot.com/ ) and Democratic Space ( http://democraticSPACE.com/canada2008 ) websites.

Calgary Grits latest has Tories now projected to win 144.5 seats, the Liberals 92.5, the Bloc 42.3, and the NDP 27.8. Greg Morrow of Democratic Space projects Tories 146, Liberals 91, NDP 30, and the Bloc 39. These are remarkably similar. 155 seats are required to form a majority government. So at this stage in the campaign the Tories are within spitting distance of a majority.


Election 2008: Day Six

At the end of Day Six you have to wonder what is happening in this campaign. For Mr. Control Freak, Stephen Harper, it has been a week of gaffes. First, the pooping penguin. Then the attempt to block Elizabeth May of the Greens from participating in the debates by threatening to pick up his marbles and boycott the debates ( Yes, Jack, you didn't win any points on this one either). A public backlash forced Harper, Layton and the networks to reverse themselves. May will now participate. She got lots of favourable airplay from the big boys' antics.

Then Ryan Sparrow, Director of Communications, for the Conservatives took a swipe at a father who had lost his son in Afghanistan. The father, Jim Davis, criticized Harper for reversal of position on Afghanistan, saying that his son's sacrifice would have been in vain. (Harper, pandering to Quebec voters, had announced that Canada would pull out of Afghanistan in 2011 no matter what the circumstances by that time). Sparrow tried to smear Jim Davis as an Iggy supporter. Harper had to apologize and suspend Sparrow for the duration of the campaign. All in all, on the surface not an auspicious beginning for the Conservatives.

Harper's policy announcements/ the diesel tax cut and the Afghanistan policy reversal/ kind of got lost in the furore generated by the missteps.

Stephane Dion soldiered through the week, coming across as the victim of a mean-spirited Conservative campaign whose ads continue to consist of personal attacks on Dion's leadership abilities. His explanations of the Green Shift became more articulate and catchy as the week progressed. He survived all the pundits wink/wink stuff about the slow start to his campaign and the delay in securing his campaign plane.

Jack Layton continued to assert that he is campaigning to become PM. Overall, his campaign so far has been assertive and effective. The NDP bounced back to pick up additional support in BC. Today Jack took the most aggressive swing at the oil companies for the sudden overnight increase in the price of gasoline by 13 cents a liter, allegedly due to Hurricane Ike. This probably struck some resonant chords with voters who generally found the companies' explanation a bit far-fetched.

BQ leader Gilles Duceppe is being pushed hard by the Conservatives who hope to forge a majority by taking seats from the Bloc in Quebec. He was not helped by a PQ Cabinet Minister who declared that the Bloc had lost its relevance. Duceppe's main theme has been that Quebecers need to support the BQ in order to keep Harper from securing a majority.

Today Harper announced that Canada would welcome even greater foreign investment/ takeovers of Canadian companies by increasing the threshhold to trigger reviews of such takeovers from $250 million to $1 billion. No doubt this will go down well with the Fraser Institute and in his Alberta stronghold but what is its appeal for Joe and Jane Q Canadian?

Overall, it would appear that the Conservative campaign got off to a shaky start. But the latest poll today appears to contradict that impression. A new Canadian Press-Harris-Decima survey put the Tories at 41 per cent support, with the Liberals well back at 26 per cent, suggesting his Conservatives could be headed for a majority government (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080912.welxngaining0912/BNStory/politics/home)
But these early polls could actually turn out to be an albatross around Harper's neck. If voters get the impression that a Conservative majority is imminent, this could well cause them to rethink their voting intentions, given the apparent aversion to giving an autocrat even greater power to reshape Canada.


Election 2008: Day Three

Day Three of the campaign was a bad one for Harper's Conservatives. The day started with a communications disaster as the Conservatives webmasters got a little too cute for their own good. A Conservative website http://notaleader.ca showed an animated puffin flying across the screen and pooping (plopping a white blob) on the shoulder of Liberal leader Stephane Dion. Dion responded forcefully and Harper was forced to apologize. But the incident has helped to characterize the Conservative leader and the Conservative campaign as mean-spirited.

The incident drowned out the Conservatives' first major policy announcement of the campaign, a promise to cut the excise tax on diesel.

Harper's decision to block Elizabeth May's participation in the leaders debates also came back to haunt him today. Talk shows across the country resonated with callers from all parties upset at this decision and the strong-arm tactics by the PM. And blogs buzzed with indignation. In effect this has become the first real issue to capture voters' attention. The response is not encouraging for the Harper campaign. In his media ads Harper is attempting to show a softer, gentler image but his actions suggest otherwise and recall for voters the way he has governed/ one-man, iron-fisted governance.

Election 2008: Day Two

On Day Two Stephen Harper accused the Liberals of favouring a higher GST and promising to scrap the Conservatives' popular $1,200-per-year child-care benefit. He attacked Dion's Green Shift carbon tax plan, saying the Liberals were "asking Canadians to sign up for a permanent new category of taxation."

Dion fought back calling Harper a liar. A Reality Check by CBC TV confirmed that Harper had misrepresented the Liberals' position.

Contrasting with his avuncular TV ads attempting to portray a softer image, Harper strong-armed TV executives into excluding Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from the leaders debates. Network executives announced that Harper had refused to participate if May were allowed in. This could be a big mistake, revealing Harper's "bully" nature again.

Meanwhile the Canadian Taxpayers Foundation revealed that the Conservative government made spending announcements totalling $8.8 billion in the three months before the election was called on Sunday. So much for Harper's denouncement of the Liberals as big spenders!


The 2008 Canadian Election: Day One

It's now official. The writ has been dropped. We will vote on October 14th. And already the parties are staking out their positions. You could be forgiven if you thought the election actually started weeks ago. Stephen Harper has been playing High Noon all summer, first telling Dion to "fish or cut bait", then inviting the opposition to pledge allegiance to his agenda this fall "or else". After the charade of meeting the three leaders individually for a few minutes each, Harper visited the GG this morning to pull the plug on Parliament and start his campaign for a majority government. (Pardon me: he says repeatedly that he expects another "minority"; wouldn't want to rattle those voters still fearful of what Harper might do with a majority).

Too bad he had to break his own election promises and, some argue, a law his government enacted, to precipitate an election now when he considered the stars best aligned for good fortune for the Conservatives. In his 2006 Blue Book Harper promised:

"Elections are to be held every four years, except when a government loses the confidence of the House."

So much for that promise! But wait... this Parliament had become "dysfunctional" the PM claimed. If that's the case why is he promising to campaign on the Conservatives' record of achievements and promises fulfilled. Ironic, non?

Stephane Dion meanwhile seems to have had some difficulty in getting to the launch pad, with a rather leisurely start to the campaign. He will campaign on his environmental agenda, the Green Shift, and attack the Conservatives' record of broken promises.

Jack Layton was quicker off the mark stating that Harper had quit his job and that he (Layton) was applying for it. The NDP appears to be ignoring the Liberals and targeting the Cons in their early ads.

Gilles Duceppe of the BQ was perhaps the most honest of the bunch. He informed us that the Bloc's mission this time is to prevent Harper from getting a majority. And indeed a lot rides on whether the Bloc can prevent further Conservative inroads in Quebec.

Stay tuned!


Tory majority possible

I might have to eat my last post. Other recent polls (The Strategic Counsel, Environics today) indicate a surge in support for the Conservatives recently. So Harper instead of striving to preserve his minority status may have read the entrails of recent regular Conservative polling and sensed a possible opportunity to secure a majority, an opportunity that may have diminished after the House resumed and Conservative dirty linen was again aired daily.

The most recent poll conducted for CBC by Environics Ltd indicates Canadians are most likely to vote for the Conservatives in a federal election, and believe Stephen Harper and Jack Layton would make better prime ministers than Stéphane Dion( http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2008/09/04/poll-results.html ) The poll suggests that 38 per cent of Canadians would vote for the Conservative party if an election were held immediately, 28 per cent for the Liberal party, 19 for the NDP, eight for the Bloc Québécois and seven for the Green party. If correct this would mean that the Conservatives start the election campaign with a 10 point lead and in reach of a majority.

One of the most disturbing results for the Liberals is that 39 per cent said Harper would make the best prime minister, 15 per cent Layton of the NDP while only 13 per cent chose Stephane Dion. Dion appears to be an anchor around the Liberals' neck.

While a poll does not an election make, these results indicate that the Liberals may have little chance of forming a minority. They will have to make up ground to hold Harper to another minority and deny him the majority which would leave them in the wilderness for another four years. Can they rise to the challenge? Time will tell.

One thing is clear. Mr. Harper will have broken another promise, to move to fixed election times. As Rex Murphy put it, he is moved by opportunism, not principles.

The inside info on Sarah Palin

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