Canada: Liberals campaign on social programs


Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff kicked off Canada's election campaign with impressive plans and public appearances but Conservative Stephen Harper is still the frontrunner for the May 2 election.


Simon Hayter

TORONTO, Canada — Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff has kicked off the second week of Canada’s federal election by unveiling an $8.2 billion platform of policies to help middle and low income families.

The policies announced Sunday include giving $1,000 to every college and university student, $1 billion to create new daycare spaces, $1 billion to help care for ill family members at home and a $400 million tax credit to help Canadians pay for energy-saving home renovations.

“We can deliver these practical benefits to Canadian families without raising taxes,” Ignatieff, the main rival to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told a partisan audience in Ottawa.

The money for the Liberal promises would mainly come from the centrist party’s pledge to reverse tax cuts to corporations given by Harper’s minority Conservative party government. That would put at least another $5 billion back in government coffers.

Ignatieff also vows to end $225 million in tax breaks to companies in Alberta’s controversial oil sands projects, which produce the much-criticized “dirty” oil piped to the United States.

Harper has predictably denounced Ignatieff’s Liberals as the “tax and spend” party that, if elected, would hurt Canada’s economic recovery. But Ignatieff, a former Harvard professor of human rights, is widely viewed as having outperformed Harper in the first week on the campaign trail.

Granted, expectations for Ignatieff, who turns 64 next month, could hardly have been lower. Since winning the Liberal leadership uncontested in December 2008, he has failed to connect with Canadians. In its latest poll, the Ipsos-Reid firm asked Canadians who would make the best prime minister: 49 percent chose Harper, 34 percent picked Jack Layton (leader of the socialist New Democratic Party), and only 17 percent named Ignatieff.

Conservative attack ads portray Ignatieff, who spent three decades living abroad, as a snobbish dilettante whose commitment to Canada runs no deeper than his desire to become prime minister. But Ignatieff scored points in the first week of the campaign by emphasizing policies, meeting voters in unscripted events and answering as many questions as reporters and citizens could throw at him.

Harper by contrast has run the classic frontrunner campaign. He has focused on events with pre-screened supporters in attendance and restricted questions from reporters in press conferences to no more than five. This has fueled Harper’s reputation as a control freak, and multiplied warnings of a hidden, right-wing agenda that would be unleashed on the country if the Conservatives win a majority government.

Harper, who won a minority government in 2006 and another in 2008, also stumbled when he challenged Ignatieff to a one-on-one debate. When Ignatieff immediately accepted — “Any time, any place” — Harper suddenly backed down. Ignatieff has been dogging Harper with that challenge ever since. There will, however, be a televised debate that involves all four leaders of parties with seats in the House of Commons.

Still, polls at the end of the first week of campaigning put Harper close to winning a majority government when Canadians vote May 2. To form a majority, a party needs to win 155 seats. When a non-confidence motion brought down Harper’s minority government almost two weeks ago, his Conservatives held 143 seats, the Liberals 77, the Bloc Quebecois 47 and the NDP 36.

An Ekos poll Friday had Harper’s Conservatives at 37 percent support nationally, compared to 26 percent for the Liberals and 17 for the NDP.

Harper has promised tax cuts for families after eliminating Canada’s $56 billion deficit within five years. But his main message so far has been to warn that a third Conservative minority government would be quickly brought down by a “coalition” of Liberals, NDP and the Bloc Quebecois, a party dedicated to breaking up Canada by making the province of Quebec an independent country. The Bloc is again expected to win most of the 75 seats up for grabs in French-speaking Quebec.

The message is clear: If you don’t want Quebec separatists calling the shots in the next parliament, give Conservatives a majority government.

The first week of campaigning, however, left little to suggest that Harper has overcome his see-saw relationship with Canadian voters.

“One of the iron-law relationships in the electorate is that whenever polls report the Conservatives moving into majority territory, there is a recoil effect,” said Frank Graves, president of the EKOS polling firm.

“In other words, there’s a group that says, ‘Yeah, I’d vote Conservative.’ But when you tell them the outcome might be a Conservative majority, they go, ‘Oh, well, I like them, but not that much,’” Graves said.

Canadians, in other words, still don’t trust Harper — at least not yet.