OTTAWA — Canadians are being asked to pick their poison as the country heads into its fourth election campaign in seven years: economic insecurity or democratic decline.
The unpalatable options came with the unofficial start of the campaign after Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government fell Friday on an historic vote in Parliament.
Harper claims the looming May election and opposition “coalition” is a danger to the economy and the country.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says the real danger is Harper’s contempt for democracy.
Voters will have about five weeks to sort through the rhetoric after Harper pays a visit Saturday morning to the Governor General at Rideau Hall, when Canada’s 40th Parliament will be formally dissolved.
“Let me assure you that our priority will remain to ensure stability and security for Canadians in what remain extremely challenging global circumstances,” Harper said Friday.
A few minutes earlier, MPs had voted 156-145 in favour of a Liberal motion expressing non-confidence and citing the Harper government for contempt of Parliament — a first for a national government anywhere in the Commonwealth.
Harper said the Commons vote, “which obviously disappoints me, will I suspect disappoint most Canadians.”
As the vote count was read out, a handful of opposition MPs tossed papers in the air — echoes of parliamentary defeats past — while bemused Conservatives looked on impassively.
Exuberant Tories had bumped fists as they voted “Nay” to the Liberal motion they knew they would lose. Later, they emerged from a final caucus meeting holding laminated, election-ready booklets festooned with Harper’s photo on the cover.
Harper, who took no questions from reporters, gave a preview of his campaign message. He and others defended this week’s federal budget as a responsible plan during a fragile economic recovery and warned about the irresponsible effects of an “unnecessary” election.
However, Don Drummond, chief economist at TD Bank Financial Group and a former top Finance Department official, rattled off five reasons why a federal election poses virtually no threat to Canada’s economy.
“I’m not too fussed with that (election prospect) virtually at any point — but certainly not at this time,” Drummond said.
Harper is expected to campaign on the budget, which was laden with tightly targeted tax credits and riding-specific goodies, while simultaneously accusing his opponents of plotting to subvert the democratic will of the electorate should the Conservatives fail to add 12 Tory seats and win their coveted majority.
“There was nothing — absolutely nothing — in the budget that the opposition could not or should not have supported,” Harper said.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Ignatieff and his coalition partners in the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois made abundantly clear that they had already decided they wanted to force an election instead.”
But Ignatieff insisted there can be no more profound cause for an election than the protection of democracy. He noted that Harper didn’t even deign to mention the fact his government had just been found in contempt of Parliament.
“This tells you all you need to know about this man,” Ignatieff said. “There are only two alternatives here: more of this disrespect for democracy, more of this contempt for the Canadian people, or a compassionate, responsible Liberal government.”
He said Liberals will fan out across the country “to present a message of hope instead of a message of fear, a message of unity instead of a message of division, a message of principle instead of the constant politics of personal destruction.”
Commons Speaker Peter Milliken and an opposition-dominated committee had already found a case for contempt, and the Liberals ensured that would be the trigger for the defeat of Harper’s second straight minority government, 29 months after the last election.
The opposition parties wasted no time pounding home their campaign message, slamming the prime minister as a secretive leader who abuses power and leads a government plagued by scandal.
In the past 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.
Ignatieff acknowledged that some Canadians are questioning the need for another election.
“We did not seek an election,” he said. “But if we need one to replace a government that doesn’t respect democracy with one that does, I can’t think of a more necessary election.”
The NDP said the budget fails to deliver real relief to beleaguered seniors, understaffed health-care systems, and middle-class Canadians.
NDP Leader Jack Layton was still imploring the government to rewrite its budget as late as Friday morning’s final question period in the House.
“They’re just plain stubborn,” said Layton.
“Why are Conservatives intent on provoking an election?”
Prospective voters have been bombarded with $26 million worth of feel-good Economic Action Plan ads over the past 11 weeks and bureaucrats were directed late last year to start using the “Harper Government” in place of Government of Canada on departmental news releases.
Taxpayer-funded ads from the Finance Department warned of the “fragile” nature of the economic recovery — a buzzword now on the lips of every Conservative candidate.
The government’s economic message has been paired with dire warnings of a Liberal-led coalition threat.
Ignatieff has tried to polarize the coming election into a two-party fight between Harper Conservatives and those who oppose them — between “a blue door and a red door.”
Conservatives are trying to convince Canadians otherwise.
“Lurking behind the red door are socialists and separatists plotting for cabinet seats!” thundered MP Dean Del Mastro in the Commons.
The alarmist Conservative talk was scoffed at by Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, who has pointedly noted that Harper proposed defeating Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government on its throne speech in 2004 and replacing it, with NDP and Bloc backing.
Duceppe revelled in the details this week, describing the Delta Hotel on Maissonneuve Boulevard in Montreal where Harper convened the conspirators.
“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?”’ Duceppe recalled.