In the final days leading up to the campaign of 2011, Stephen Harper largely dropped out of sight. The Prime Minister stopped showing up for question period when his government’s fall became inevitable. After the opposition voted down his Conservative minority, he read a muted response from a podium in the ornate foyer of the House, and took no questions. There was reason to suspect he might be setting the tone for the race to come. After all, polls showed him well ahead, and a classic, minimalist front-runner’s strategy would be to do nothing to risk shaking things up. But Harper had other ideas.
From the steps of Rideau Hall after visiting the Governor General to set the campaign in motion, and at every stop after, he lashed out at his main rival, Michael Ignatieff—accusing the Liberal leader of intending to break his word and join forces with the NDP and Bloc Québécois. In return, Ignatieff indicted Harper for “a systematic pattern of falsehoods.” “He wouldn’t recognize the truth if it walked up and shook his hand,” he said.
All federal elections have their elbows-up moments, but few have featured the key combatants portraying each other so bluntly as liars from the outset. The unusually bitter tone springs from Harper’s insistence that if his Conservatives win only another minority, Ignatieff’s secret plan is to forge a coalition with the NDP’s Jack Layton and the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe to seize power. He bases this allegation, of course, on the late 2008 bid by Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion, to do just that, after Dion had vowed not to during that fall’s campaign. “Their record is clear,” Harper says. “Deny it in an election and do it afterwards.” And so he brushes off Ignatieff’s vow to let whichever party wins the most seats, even if it’s a third consecutive Tory minority, take the first crack at forming a government.
Harper’s insistence on the inevitability of the coalition—if voters again deny him a majority—did more than make the campaign’s early days uncommonly rancorous. The theme also invited a heavy dose of arcane debate about Parliament’s conventions regarding unstable minorities. The combination wasn’t promising: a campaign dominated by a mix of personal invective, from which most voters recoil, and constitutional nuances, which make most eyes glaze over. But wait. Only three days into this contest of meanness and minutiae, a surprisingly clear contrast on platforms—honest-to-goodness policy—suddenly entered the picture. First, Harper announced an income-splitting plan for parents that could cut taxes for 1.8 million families. Next, Ignatieff counterpunched with a plan to give every student who enrolls in college or university $4,000—$6,000 for students from low-income families.
These centrepiece policies introduced something beyond mutual contempt into the rivalry between Harper and Ignatieff. The Conservatives’ family tax plan is classic Harper. It targets two-parent, middle-class families, and is particularly valuable when a mom decides to stay home to raise kids. The promise is to let couples split their income for tax purposes. That means shifting some income from the parent earning the most to the parent in the lower tax bracket. It would cost $2.5 billion a year and save 1.8 million families an average of $1,300. “We will make it easier,” Harper declared in the tidy backyard of a family near Victoria, “for parents to cover the day-to-day costs of raising their kids.”
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