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Liberal message might not make much sense, but at least it’s a message


Liberal message might not make much sense, but at least it’s a message

By Andrew Coyne

We have reached the stage of the campaign where the parties, having run out of things to say and candidates to sack, face a stark choice: repeat yourself, or make it up as you go along.

The Liberals, for example, have discovered it is an important national objective to show Justin Trudeau in a T-shirt. For most of the past week, they have been offering some version of this routine, day after day finding some excuse for the leader to show some skin. There’s Justin climbing the Grouse Grind in Vancouver. Justin boxing in Montreal. Justin, preposterously, canoeing the Bow River in Calgary — you know, just stealing away from the campaign to get a little R&R, tracked by a flotilla of cameras, some airborne.

As for the Conservatives, naturally they are above such stunts. These are serious times, after all, and they call for serious measures. Measures like the one Stephen Harper announced the other day, as it was described in a party press release, to the effect that “a re-elected Conservative government would aim to create 1.3 million net new jobs by 2020.”

Yes, yes, and what sort of policies did he suggest would help us achieve that objective? No, that was the measure: the only thing the Conservative leader had to announce was that he had set this “ambitious goal.” Or, as it might also be described, a fond hope. The prime minister hopes employment will rise by 1.3 million over the next five years. And I hope it will not rain.

And then there is the NDP. The party announced with great fanfare just before last week’s economic debate that it had “fully costed” its platform. This mundane bit of paperwork is always trotted out by the parties, adorably, as if it were some sort of extraordinary exercise in transparency. It is as if a shopkeeper, seeking to attract more customers into his store, were to exclaim, “Look! Now with price tags!”

In the NDP’s case, the purpose of “costing” would appear to be, in its entirety, that the figures in each column added up to the number at the bottom. The party’s assumptions, notably with regard to oil prices, were conspicuously out of date. Line items worth billions of dollars were broken down no further than an airy “Help Where It Is Needed Most.” Billions more appeared to have been left out altogether.

So it drags on, the curious joylessness of the Tory campaign — More of the Same, You Miserable Curs — matched only by the chiming vacuousness of the opposition parties’: Ready for Change versus Real Change (or is it the other way around?). Mind you, when it comes to running a vacuous, incoherent campaign, let it be said, the Liberals are beating the hell out of the NDP.

Under Tom Mulcair, the party has gone to great lengths to present itself as the responsible alternative to the Conservatives, with Mulcair as the safe and experienced choice for prime minister. To find the money to balance the budget, they’d raise taxes, and phase in spending increase over many years. When the subject of the F-35 came up, Mulcair took the only responsible stance: we’d have a fair and open competition, neither ruling out any of the competitors in advance nor ruling them in.

By contrast, Trudeau appears unconstrained by such concerns, or indeed by much else: consistency, coherence, basic physics. It isn’t just on the deficit that the Grits have adopted a position of radical internal contradiction, one minute slamming the Conservatives for running years of deficits, the next boasting they’d add several more to the string. They’re also for free trade, while attacking the Conservatives for … freeing trade (a press release denounced Harper for his “unwillingness to protect vital auto sector jobs in Southern Ontario” in talks on the Trans-Pacfic Partnership). They’re for an open competition to pick a new fighter jet, but also for excluding the F-35 from consideration.

It’s too simple to say that they have outflanked the NDP to the left, though it is fascinating to see how the party sells its tax policy. I might have expected them to say, “We’ll cut taxes for the middle class, and pay for it with a tax increase on the very rich.” But, in fact, party rhetoric inverts this. It’s the tax increase on the rich that’s front and centre; the middle-class tax cut has become almost an afterthought. The voters it is trying to reach, it seems, are less interested in “what’s in it for me” than in seeing to it that someone else gets whacked.

And it’s working. Until Sept. 15, every poll but one put the NDP ahead of the Liberals. Since then, every poll but one has the Liberals ahead of the NDP. The Liberal message might not make a whole lot of sense, but at least it’s a message. Whereas the NDP seems to have responsibled itself into a near-stupor.

The party is running a swell campaign for a two-party race, in which the challenger’s task is to creep up as close to the doddering old governing party as possible, promising little but smiling a lot, until the poor thing collapses of its own accumulated weight. It seems not to have anticipated the possibility of a three-way race, in which it might find itself outbid for the “change” voter.

Watching the leaders’ debate, I thought Trudeau looked terrible: shouting, interrupting, reeling off talking points, plainly out of his depth. No doubt he turned off a lot of voters — those who’d already written him off. But the type of voter the two parties are fighting over may be less interested in which leader is more knowledgeable about the economy than which one’s more irate about it. Who knew Angry Tom would be outscowled by Sunny Justin?

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