Harper goes for broke

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The Harper team is getting ready for a dash to election. It has totally revamped the Conservative party in Quebec, where it now claims 22,000 members, up from only about 1,000 in 2006. The PM placed himself next to Canada's favourite political figure, U.S. President Obama, in a well publicized "first visit abroad." The Harper follow-up to the Obama visit to Canada, was a trip to New York where he used the American media to send images home of a competent leader able to play in the big leagues.

Importantly, Harper has been reaching out to his core supporters, the old Reform party types, who are none too happy about deficit financing and government bailouts of industry. In one of the most outrageous actions in the long history of discrimination against women by parliament, the Harper government has eliminated pay equity legislation. Worse it has managed to make organizing for pay equity an offense punishable by fine.

With his leadership weakened by the fiasco of the December economic update, Harper had to build bridges to at least one opposition party to stay in power. By abandoning the conservative ideology of no deficits, and agreeing to pump up spending, the prime minister was able to woo the new Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff into voting for the Conservative budget.
Through the attack on pay equity Harper still gets to show his true blue colours. As president of the National Citizens Coalition he campaigned against social legislation designed to correct inequities in market society. Pay equity was a favourite target.

Meanwhile, the Liberal party, which has long benefited from "gender gap" support, featuring a higher support level among women than men, has to explain how it can now be opposing equal pay for women for work of equal value. In effect, the Conservatives hope to shift support from the Liberals to the NDP and the Bloc over this issue, thus weakening their only rival for power.

The Liberals have trapped themselves. By letting it be known they would not defeat an expansionary budget, they have allowed Harper to devise a means of governing as if he had a majority. Under the rules of the House of Commons, only one main amendment (by the official opposition) can be offered on a budget, and one sub-amendment (by one other opposition party). What the Conservatives have done is include in Bill C-10, ostensibly the Budget Implementation Act, an entire legislative program that has little if anything to do with the budget. By committing to support the Conservative budget, the Liberals have given a minority government a free hand to implement its legislative agenda, and force an election at a time of its choosing.

Bill C-10 has now cleared the House of Commons, and pay equity activists are turning their attention to the still Liberal dominated Senate.

The Liberals are banking on the popularity of the Conservatives falling -- as fast as the economy falls -- all the way down to the point where the Liberals -- as the voter default option -- scoop up dissatisfied voters.

The Liberal strategy has a number of holes. So long as the Conservatives keeps their Western base, the Bloc holds its support in Quebec and the NDP keeps winning its 30 urban ridings, the Liberals have no room to grow to a majority. The Conservatives on the other hand just need to win 20-25 seats in Quebec, and a majority is within reach.

In addition to painting the Liberals as an anti-women party in order to divide the opposition vote, the Conservatives have ramped up the oldest strategy of all: government spending in government-held ridings. Recently Conservatives have made hundreds of announcements of money to be spent in Conservative ridings.

When Michael Ignatieff is "introduced" to the Canadian public by Conservative party attack ads, you will know the election campaign is ready to go. What will be showing on television stations across the land? "Where was he for 30 years" is one predictable theme. "How come he became leader without being elected by the party" is another.

Duncan Cameron writes from Vancouver.

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