Are Liberals and New Democrats overdoing the attacks on each other?

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Photo: flickr/ Ara Shimoon

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We are now four weeks away from the October 19 vote, and it feels like this campaign has been on for at least a year.

Since 1997, campaigns have been 36 days or a bit more -- with one exception, the winter campaign of 2005-06, which took a break during the holiday period. But even that one was a mere 55 days, compared to this year's 78.

The current campaign started with the Duffy trial making it hard for Stephen Harper and his Conservatives to get their message across. 

It also started with the Official Opposition NDP looking like it had the wind of public support in its sails.

Now, it has settled into a wearying slog.

Harper has gotten at least some of his mojo back. And -- thanks to feisty, if uneven performances in two debates -- Justin Trudeau and his Liberals are back in the thick of it.

The NDP is still in a far better position than it was at this stage last time, and better placed than it has ever been this close to an election.

Even though the current Official Opposition has never governed federally, many anti-Harper voters see NDP leader Tom Mulcair as a safer and more solid choice than the Liberals' Trudeau, especially in Quebec and British Columbia.

Would the establishment have supported an NDP that promised deficits?

The NDP has certainly tried to play it safe. Mulcair has not risked more than a few evanescent moments of spontaneity in the debates; and nothing the party has proposed sounds remotely radical.

Newly recruited star NDP candidate, former Saskatchewan finance minister Andrew Thomson was quite candid about the party's strategy on CBC radio's The House this past Saturday.

Host Chris Hall asked Thomson why his party was insisting it would balance the books, when even the Liberals -- once the deficit-cutting champs -- say the times now call for deficits. 

Thomson's answer was blunt. He said that politically the Liberals could get away with abandoning the shibboleth of balanced budgets, but the NDP could not.

Like his leader, Thomson was quick to add that the NDP's fiscal program is not just about politics.

There are sound economic reasons, the former finance minister said, for keeping the government's bottom line in the black at this time. The economy may be sluggish, he and other New Democrats argue, but we are not in the global meltdown crisis we were in 2008. The federal government has run seven straight years of deficits, they say, and now is not the time to add to the burden on future generations.

That may be so, although one has the impression that if push came to shove Mulcair, Thomson and other NDPers could just as easily argue the contrary case.

It is, nonetheless, probably true that if the New Democrats had come out with Trudeau's vague and costly plan a good part of the Canadian establishment would not have enthusiastically cheered them on.

Just imagine what might have happened if, a month ago, Mulcair had told voters that in order to fulfill such promises as $15 a day child care and national pharmacare an NDP government would run modest deficits for at least three years.

Do you think Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, former Clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch and former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge would have stood up and cheered -- as they cheered Trudeau when he made a very similar announcement?

Chrétien and Martin would most likely have rushed to the microphones, with the current Liberal leader at their side, to condemn the "socialists" for abandoning the fiscal prudence that was the hallmark of the Liberals in government. 

And if Harper is scornful of the Liberal Trudeau's promise to run deficits, imagine what he would make of a similar pledge from those untrustworthy "Dippers?"

In fact, Mulcair's embrace of fiscal rectitude has not stopped the Conservative leader from slinging mud at provincial NDP governments, and by association the current federal NDP. Harper even tries to blame Alberta's economic woes on the four-month-old Rachel Notley government, as if the 44 years of Conservative rule are now ancient history. 

But Harper is mostly grasping at straws in those attacks. He'd really have something to work with if Mulcair told voters he planned to put the federal government back into the red.

Even now, the National Post editorializes that we cannot trust the NDP and its newfound commitment to balanced budgets. After all, the Post points out, it was only very recently that the NDP took the word socialist out of its party program.

Liberals shoot both ways at NDP

The seeming reversal of roles between the Liberals and NDP has resulted in some strange rhetoric.

The Liberals now feel free to attack the NDP for advocating "austerity," and do so every chance they get, as in that bizarre 'Trudeau on the escalator' ad.

But Trudeau's party also still wants to signal to voters, especially in Ontario, that the NDP is at heart a doctrinaire party of the ideological left that cannot be trusted with government.

And so, the Liberals have taken to simultaneously attacking the NDP from both the left and the right.

Early in September, the Liberals put out a press release in which they excoriated Mulcair for having said nice thing about Margaret Thatcher more than a decade ago, while at the same time they scolded the NDP for being a member of the Socialist International.

For comic relief, they characterized the very moderate Socialist International as "Marxist." That venerable international organization has 54 member parties and there is not a communist, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist party among them.

The Socialist International's member parties do include such well known flame-throwing revolutionaries as: the French Socialists, led by President François Hollande; the German Social Democratic Party, which is part of Angela Merkel's coalition government; the Congress Party of India; the governing African National Congress of South Africa (Nelson Mandela's party); the main Zimbabwean opponents of Robert Mugabe's tyrannical rule, the Movement for Democratic Change; and the Labour Party of Israel. Among the Socialist International's associated organizations are the National Democratic Institute, an arm of the American Democratic Party, and the World Labour Zionist Movement.

To characterize such an organization as Marxist betrays either utter ignorance or utter indifference to facts.

Harper is smiling

Of course, in the world of gotcha and attack politics accuracy and truth are of little importance. And the NDP has not been above throwing rocks at the party with which it might seek to form an alternative government to the Conservatives, after October 19.

The NDP dredged up a seven-year-old tape of Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland saying she thought the Canadian and United States governments should let General Motors go bankrupt rather than bail it out. Freeland was still a journalist at the time, but the NDP thought it was fair pool to fling her one-time views at her, and at her party.

NDPers have also gone after a Quebec Liberal candidate who once expressed skepticism over the economic utility of massive infrastructure spending. Such spending is the centrepiece of the current Liberals' economic platform. 

All of this Liberal-New Democrat acrimony must bring a smile to Harper's normally grim face.

And we didn't even mention the pointless dust-up over the most politically irrelevant issue of this campaign, to wit: what margin of victory in a hypothetical Quebec referendum on sovereignty would be sufficient to trigger negotiations between Quebec and the rest of Canada? Should it be a simple majority, untainted by electoral chicanery, on a clear question, or some as yet undefined, qualified majority?

Anyone for a round of counting constitutional angels on the head of a pin?

Harper has to be hoping that enough voters get so annoyed at the unseemly squabbling between the two parties that both purport to be the progressive alternative that they decide to stick with the devil they know.

And we know who that is.

Indeed, pundits are now telling us not to write off the current occupant of 24 Sussex Drive.

Despite the Conservatives' troubles, especially early in the campaign, Harper's core supporters seem to have stuck with him. Now, they say, the Conservative leader only needs to lure enough of those floating voters out there to give him at least a respectable plurality of seats, if not another majority.

But the campaign is far from over. Four weeks is a long time in politics.

The many Canadians who want change above all, and who believe Harper has been a disaster for Canada, can only hope the Liberals and New Democrats smarten up and remember who it is they are both trying to defeat. 


Photo: flickr/ Ara Shimoon

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