Trudeau Liberals hunt for centre-right voters

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It has been a favourite election disaster scenario. Two centre-left parties fighting it out for the succession to Stephen Harper. While the Liberals and the NDP knock each other around, the centre-right Conservatives squeeze out another win.

That particular political story turns out to be overstated. Both the Liberals and the NDP are wooing the "middle class," building defensive positions against Conservative attacks, not trying to outdo each other in being "progressive."

The Liberals have declined to play the centre-left card. Instead Justin Trudeau has attacked the NDP on its $15 minimum wage policy (for workers under federal jurisdiction). Though the Liberals voted for it when the NDP presented it to Parliament, Trudeau now wants everybody to know it is a weak promise, since the policy will not apply to most workers.

The Liberals are sneering at the NDP program to create child-care spaces, saying it will take too long to produce results.

The Liberal strategy appears to be the same one pursued in the Ignatieff era: wait for the Conservatives to collapse, and then scoop up the centre-right vote.

Most of the time the Conservatives are happy to be a full-out right-wing party, not centre-right. Harper Cons count on active support from shock troops in the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the National Citizens Coalition.

What made Conservatives "centrist" was the pledge of integrity in government. The Duffy trial has allowed Canadians to see firsthand how that worked out.

The Harper Conservatives claim small government and low taxes equal economic prosperity. Conservatives are tough on crime, and recognize the terrorist threat. Family means a baby bonus, not child-care spaces.

The Liberals are all right with this right-of-centre talk, even when it took the form of Bill C-51, the act that purported to be about terrorism but was really about secret police powers.

Given a shaky economy, the Conservatives have been forced into survival mode.

The Conservatives want a direct confrontation with the NDP. In a straight fight between right and left, Stephen Harper is confident his side has majority support.

In 1932, when the NDP predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), was created in Calgary, it was a left-wing party, as witnessed by its Regina Manifesto adopted the next year.

Historians identify the Winnipeg Declaration of 1956 as the year the CCF shed its radicalism and affirmed itself as a centre-left party, akin to social democratic parties around the world.

Newly moderate or not, the CCF got wiped out in the Diefenbaker sweep of 1958. It re-emerged in 1961 as the NDP, and on the federal scene was in the background in central Canada, until with Jack Layton leading, it swept Quebec 50 years later.

While the NDP has a periodically active radical wing, it is a mainstream left-of-centre party that has governed provincially in B.C., now Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba where it holds power, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. The party does not scare anybody who is not paid to say the NDP is scary. 

While a left-right confrontation would make a fine storyline for the 2015 election, the NDP are not taking up the role Harper wants to assign the party. Looking to capture vote-switching, non-partisans, most parties head for the centre at election time, and the NDP is no different.

Both the NDP and the Liberals have been positioning themselves as the alternative to the Conservatives. Anticipating this, the Harper message for months on end has been directed at diminishing Justin Trudeau. "Just not ready" started to resonate in the past year.

The Liberals have slipped from leading in the polls, and are now struggling to lift themselves into second place -- ahead of the Harper Conservatives.

A relative Conservative collapse would open the door to a Liberal resurgence in Ontario, but not in Quebec, where the Trudeau people want to order what is no longer on the menu.

While the NDP recognized Quebecers wanted to move on, the Liberal brain trust centred in Toronto wants to duel it out over who is better able to knock out the sovereignists.

The NDP has strong representation across Canada and a secure base in Quebec, a new situation for party strategists. No point in running against Alberta if you just won a provincial election in the province where Stephen Harper holds every federal seat except one.

The ballot question this election is: do you want four more years of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives? The NDP claim to represent real change; so do the Liberals.

The tried-and-true Liberal strategy -- run from the left, then govern from the right -- now reads: vote for us, we're not Stephen Harper Conservatives.

Ideas are what give meaning to politics. Liberal Conservatives are what the Justin Trudeau-led party has become.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs. His column will return in September.

Photo: Canada 2020/flickr

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