OTTAWA — Stephen Harper appears determined to campaign against the notion of a coalition threat that his Liberal opponent has explicitly ruled out.
But the Conservative prime minister is getting a rough ride from Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who says Harper is rewriting his own history on the issue.
“He wants this entire campaign to rest on a lie,” Duceppe said Sunday morning during a fiery, televised rant in Montreal.
The prime minister opened the first full day of election campaigning in Brampton, Ont., lauding a laundry list of Conservative budget goodies he said were rejected by his political opponents last week.
“As you know, the Liberal, NDP, Bloc Quebecois coalition had a different priority,” Harper told a partisan crowd in the northwestern Toronto suburb, framed by a backdrop of visible-minority supporters.
The Conservative minority fell on an unprecedented contempt-of-Parliament vote of non-confidence, setting the stage for a May 2 federal vote — the fourth in seven years.
“So we come to you, the Canadian people, to get our mandate to pass our budget and complete Canada’s economic action plan,” said Harper.
His speech to Conservative partisans in a Liberal-held riding cited numerous budget measures he said were denied to voters by the opposition parties — a “coalition” in Harper’s oft-repeated refrain.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, campaigning in Montreal, said “Harper has a problem with democracy.”
Canadians, he said, want “the politics of optimism and faith, not the politics of fear.”
A day earlier, Ignatieff had ruled out forming a coalition government and insisted that the party winning the most seats gets the chance to form government. But the Conservatives nonetheless are using the prospect of a united opposition overthrow to make a pitch for a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
The Conservatives were 12 seats short of a majority when Canada’s 40th Parliament was formally dissolved Saturday.
“The statement of Mr. Ignatieff yesterday comes down to this: We won’t call it a coalition, but if we can get away with it we’ll do it anyway,” said Harper.
The prime minister had a tougher time when confronted by reporters with questions about his own clear record in the matter of minority government legitimacy.
“Mr. Ignatieff believes he can form the government if he doesn’t win the election,” Harper said. “I don’t believe that.”
But in 2004, Harper’s stated position as leader of the official Opposition was exactly the opposite.
He invited the NDP and the separatist Bloc Quebecois to sign a joint letter reminding the governor general that if Paul Martin’s freshly minted minority Liberals were defeated on their throne speech, there were options other than another election.
Duceppe apparently watched Harper’s performance in Brampton, because he came out an hour later wielding a rhetorical sledge hammer with surgical precision.
His voice dripping sarcasm, Duceppe asked who Harper thought would lead Canada’s government if Martin had been defeated.
“You need a government to govern, right?” Duceppe said, setting the scenario for those other “options” cited in Harper’s letter to the governor general.
“Who did that leave? It wasn’t Gilles Duceppe, the nasty separatist. It wasn’t Jack Layton, the dangerous socialist. Paul Martin had just been defeated. So who was left? Stephen Harper!
“He had finished second (in the 2004 election). And he said again this morning that someone who finishes second can never become prime minister. Strange.”
Harper maintained Sunday he “wasn’t trying to bring the Martin government down. I wasn’t even tabling a confidence motion.”
But no such motion was needed at the time for the government to fall, since throne speech votes are automatically questions of confidence.
Ignatieff was dogged by repeated media questions on the coalition matter over the last 48 hours, but Harper’s handlers made sure to shut down the same line of inquiry Sunday by going to a local reporter’s question about the NHL playoffs — and then ending the media availability.
Ignatieff is campaigning in Montreal while Jack Layton is working B.C.’s lower mainland, where both the Conservatives and New Democrats claim they can make gains this election.
“Here in B.C., only New Democrats can defeat Conservatives,” Layton said at a rally in Surrey.
Layton is quickly establishing his own campaign mantra: “Ottawa is broken and it’s up to you to fix it.”