At mid-campaign, this election looks a lot like the last one. Two years ago, at this stage, the Reform/Alliance, rechristened the Conservative Party of Canada (the not-so-united right) challenged the ruling Liberals for the lead. The upstart Greens looked to be a spoiler in close races for more than a few New Democrats.
The defining events to come were the media buys. The Liberals wanted to scare the fish into their boat with ads that made Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper look worse than he already looked. They promised to stop the Tories from privatizing health care to entice NDP voters over to their side, and, post-sponsorship scandal, strategists needed longtime Liberal voters to hold their noses and, once again, vote Liberal.
The scare strategy worked to elect a Liberal minority in 2004.
But 2006 has seen some surprises. The early slips have been Liberal: loose lips about how Canadians want to spend public money on beer and popcorn, a racial slur against Toronto-Spadina NDP candidate Olivia Chow, and a finance minister — Ralph Goodale — who sees no reason to step aside because of a criminal investigation of his department announced by the RCMP.
The continuity with 2004 is that a minority government scenario dominates again.
On January 23, Canadian voters will elect a Parliament. In the British tradition that is ours, it is Parliament that chooses the government. After the election, and with no party winning a majority, Liberal leader Paul Martin remains Prime Minister until he concedes electoral defeat, resigns or his government is defeated in the House of Commons.
It is quite feasible that the Liberals could win fewer seats than the Conservatives, and still remain the government. Unless the prime minister decides otherwise, it would take a parliamentary vote to overthrow them.Should the Liberals fall in Parliament immediately following the election, Prime Minister Martin would be unlikely to call for another election right away. He would have to resign and allow for the Conservatives to form government.
In turn the Tories would be expected to prove their ability to meet the House of Commons, and pass a budget.
In a badly divided parliament the Liberals and the Conservatives would have to find common ground, and support each other — otherwise the Bloc would wield the balance of power.
The only stable coalition, an NDP/Liberal working arrangement requires that together they win more seats than in 2004. At mid-campaign, as in 2004, the NDP look ready to win more seats, and the Liberal strategy is to hold the NDP off in Ontario so as to maintain government.
Meanwhile, the NDP are on the offensive against the Liberals, believing perhaps, that the best defence is a good offense.
The crucial difference with 2004 is that the NDP can point to its role in switching the Liberals from a corporate tax cut budget supported by the Tories, to a social spending budget written by the NDP. And the Liberals have been ineffective in stopping health care privatization.
As the ads roll out over the last three weeks it will be interesting to see if the electorate sees through the false choice proposed by the Liberals: elect us, or see Canadians fend for themselves under Harper.
In fact, in urban Canada, and the West, the best way to stop the Tories is to vote NDP.