The Endless Campaign

Photo Jean-Marc Carisse

“We have a message of hope. [Prime Minister] Harper has a message of fear.”

Liberal MP Marc Garneau’s blunt assessment of this year’s federal election embodies the balancing act his party has employed since the last time Canadians went to the polls in September 2008.

For what has essentially been a 30-month-long campaign, the Liberals have scrambled across the country trying to inspire new voters while attempting to capitalize on a number of highly publicized Conservative blunders.

But for all their efforts, bus tours and town hall meetings, the Liberals have failed to gain much traction on their political rivals.

Since being elected to a minority government nearly three years ago, the Conservative Party has bobbed and weaved its way out of political defeat, escaping two potential no-confidence votes by proroguing parliament twice in a 12-month period.

The Harper Government finally lost a motion of non-confidence after it was found in contempt of parliament. It was the first time in commonwealth history that a government was defeated for contempt of parliament.

Despite this historical loss and the electoral campaign it has triggered, an April 8 Nanos poll has the Liberals trailing the Conservatives by nearly 10 per cent.

“We are behind in the polls but if you look at what people have said, just about everyone is saying [Liberal leader Michael] Ignatieff is having the better campaign,” said Garneau, who is running for reelection in Montreal’s Westmount-Ville-Marie riding.

“Mr. Harper is looking tense, he’s not willing to let media ask him tough questions, and he’s refusing to let Ignatieff debate him one-on-one, even though he’s the one that threw down the gauntlet,” he said. “So on one hand, we’re winning the campaign. It’s not reflected in the polls, but we’re gaining momentum. It’s like when the tide goes out, it seems to stand there for a while; then it comes back in.”

Returning to his comparison of hope versus fear, Garneau criticized Harper’s decision to pour billions into Canada’s prison system at a time when reported crimes have been declining for 20 years.

“[Harper] is saying there are more criminals out there and be afraid of them, let’s build more jails to put them in,” said Garneau. “That’s not the way we see Canada, especially with the crime rate going down. We want to carry a message of hope and focus on families.”

The ‘focus on families’ is at the forefront of the Liberal platform. Appealing to young voters—the most untapped demographic in the 2008 election—the Liberals are pledging $1 billion in post-secondary education annually if elected.

Under the ‘Canadian Learning Passport,’ every high school student in Canada would receive $1,000 annually for four years to spend on college, university or CEGEP.

“I’m hoping [students] are going to stop for a second and look at the different platforms and say, ‘My life can actually change if I make this particular choice,’” said Garneau. “We believe that young people should have the right to a post-secondary education. Many of them make the choice not to go because they find it hard to pay for it and because they come from modest means. So they just put it out of their mind. We want to give them a chance at a better life because otherwise they might just turn away from it.”

Beyond the appeal of attracting new voters, the Learning Passport may also resonate with Quebec students, who are facing dramatic university tuition hikes starting in 2012.

For their part, the Conservatives need to make inroads in Quebec, a province traditionally dominated by the Bloc Québécois, in their bid for a majority government. For the Liberals to even have a chance of winning a minority government, they also need to greatly expand their presence in Quebec’s political landscape.

“The Bloc is a legitimate party, but if Quebecers want to get rid of Harper, voting for the Bloc won’t do it,” said Garneau. “There’s only one alternative: vote for the Liberals so we can have a chance to beat them.”

During the 2008 election, Prime Minister Harper took aim at seven federally-funded programs promoting Quebec culture abroad. Harper’s call to eliminate the programs struck a nerve with Quebecers, who overwhelmingly elected Bloc Québécois MPs, effectively blocking the Conservatives’ shot at a majority government.

“Quebecers want to be understood, and that starts with identity,” said Garneau. “Quebecers sent Harper a message in 2008 and that message essentially said, ‘You don’t understand Quebecers.’”

In Montreal, the Conservatives hoped to gain some footing by parachuting two of their marquee candidates onto the island. So far, polls have Conservative hopeful and Montreal Alouettes President Larry Smith being pounded by Liberal candidate Francis Scarpaleggia in the Lac-St-Louis riding. Former Justice Minister Martin Cauchon isn’t faring much better. He trails NDP candidate Thomas Mulcair by 20 points in the Outremont riding.

The Liberals are also struggling to gain momentum in Quebec, as they have lost ground to the NDP and the Bloc Québécois in the latest Angus Reid Poll.

“There’s plenty of campaigning left,” said Garneau. “We have to earn Quebecers’ trust. There’s no way of short-circuiting that. You have to earn it.”