OTTAWA — The federal election is set for May 2 and it’s shaping up to be a nasty campaign battle from C to C — coalition to contempt.
Stephen Harper went on the attack Saturday with a grim-faced, tough-talking message just minutes after meeting with the Governor General to dissolve Parliament. The prime minister urged voters to give him a majority to stave off a “reckless opposition coalition.”
But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff moved to blunt that line of attack, vowing not to form any coalition with the NDP or Bloc Quebecois and warning that the real danger is Harper’s contempt for democracy.
In a historic vote Friday, the House of Commons passed a Liberal non-confidence motion citing the Conservative government for contempt of Parliament — a first for a national government anywhere in the Commonwealth.
Ignatieff chose the seat of Canadian democracy, Parliament Hill, to launch his campaign.
“The Harper Winter will soon be over,” he smiled, amid a phalanx of Liberal MPs in the shadow of the Peace Tower.
“We will be asking Canadians to choose between a prime minister that shows scant respect for our institutions and a Liberal team that believes profoundly that the first thing you expect of a government is respect for democratic principles.”
Harper said the Liberals can’t be trusted to keep their word and warned that an opposition coalition would be a danger to the economy and the country.
“Let me be perfectly clear,” he said. “Unless Canadians elect a stable, national, majority government, Michael Ignatieff will form a coalition with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois. Imagine a coalition of arch-centralists and Quebec sovereigntists trying to work together. The only thing they’ll be able to agree on is to spend more money and to raise taxes to pay for it.”
That alarmist talk was scoffed at by Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, who noted that Harper was eager in 2004 to replace Paul Martin’s minority Liberals with a Tory government backed by the NDP and Bloc.
Harper signed a letter with Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton at the time, asking the governor general to “consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options” before agreeing to call an election.
“He lied this morning. He lied,” Duceppe said of the prime minister.
Duceppe revelled in the details of his meeting with Harper in 2004 at the Delta Hotel in Montreal: “He was coming in my office saying, ‘If Martin is going to lose confidence, what do you want in the throne speech? What would you like in the budget?”’
The opposition parties have already begun pounding home their campaign message, slamming the prime minister as a secretive leader who abuses power, leads a government plagued by scandal and lavishes tax cuts on big business while doing little for average Canadians.
Layton hammered away at that theme in his campaign kick-off speech in Ottawa.
“After five years, Stephen Harper has failed to fix what’s wrong in Ottawa,” he told a cheering crowd. “In fact, he’s made it worse. You’re working harder than ever. Your household debt is at an all-time high, your retirement is less secure …
“He promised he’d finally clean up Liberal-style scandals. Instead, he just created new scandals of his own … Ottawa is broken and it’s time for us to fix it.”
In the last month, the Conservative party and four of its top officials have been charged with election overspending and two RCMP investigations have been launched against former political staffers.
While the opposition tries to focus voters on Tory scandal and contempt, Harper is keen to paint himself as the only reliable steward of the economy at a time of fragile recovery.
Harper used his first campaign rally, in Quebec City, to tout this week’s federal budget which was laden with tightly targeted tax credits and riding-specific goodies. He noted that the budget offered financial relief for families and seniors — and repeatedly highlighted the fact that he didn’t raise taxes.
Quebec City is crucial to Harper. He likely needs to hold on to the six Conservative seats in the region if he is to have a chance of winning his coveted majority. That could be a challenge given discontent over his recent decision not to fund a new arena in the city.
Ignatieff also picked Quebec for his first stop outside Ottawa, heading to Montreal where the Liberals hope to win back a seat lost to the NDP and solidify their other ridings.
Layton jetted to Edmonton where he hopes to build on the NDP bridgehead in Edmonton-Strathcona, the only non-Conservative seat in the province.
And Green party Leader Elizabeth May began her campaign in Saanich, B.C., where she’s making her third attempt — all in different ridings — to become Canada’s first Green MP.