Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Talk of contempt, corruption and coalitions

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Contempt. That's the first C-word that should have been launched with the verbal rockets that lit up the first days of the spring federal election.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says a historic contempt-of-Parliament ruling is ultimately what caused Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government to collapse last week under the weight of a non-confidence vote. Of course, contempt of Parliament is, by extension, contempt of democracy. And contempt of you, even if, understandably, you have your own reasons for holding Parliament in contempt.

There are other C-words that are important to this campaign, though, even in its early days.

Corruption, for example.

A sniff of which wafted recently from the Prime Minister's Office, when Harper asked the RCMP to probe a former top adviser over allegations of influence peddling. Oh, and then there was Elections Canada laying charges last month against the Conservative party and four of its members, including two senators, over alleged violations of election spending rules.

The combination of a contempt ruling and corruption allegation could have posed the highest hurdle out of the starting blocks for a government and party in which ethical behaviour is supposed to be a pillar -- not an Achilles' heel. But neither Ignatieff, nor NDP Leader Jack Layton, led off their own campaigns that way. Harper didn't give them the chance, even if they'd planned to.

Instead, Harper opened in typical style, by attacking and throwing up a fog of fear with his own C-word: coalition. Along with another implied one: conspiracy, Harper's contention being the opposition parties already have plans to form a coalition government if the Conservatives don't get a majority.

In the process, the PM accused them, both ironically and inaccurately, of plotting something undemocratic. He produced no evidence. But Stephen Harper has never let facts get in the way of a good strategy before and this one was better than good -- take control of the campaign by saying his C-word early. He started Day 1, saying it often. He used it 21 times in a single speech on Day 2, and in so doing drove the voter-unpopular 'coalition' word deep in the country's collective consciousness.

In short, Harper's plan was an attempt to define the campaign before the other party leaders could define theirs. It's a classic strategy.

But this one had other benefits. It forced Ignatieff to promise he wouldn't gang up with the other opposition parties and take over Parliament should the Conservatives return with a minority government.

More importantly, Harper's plan to strike first put the Liberals and NDP on the defensive and off-message. Or at least it did until Harper had to answer questions about his own flirtations with the same idea seven years ago, when the Paul Martin Liberals had a minority government and Harper was willing to get under the covers with the opposition.

Thankfully, there are other C-words with more significance. And I'm not talking about crime. I'm thinking about the ultimate C-word for so many Canadians -- 'cancer', which is what Jack Layton is battling.

And 'courage,' which Layton displays every time he and his cane arrive at another campaign stop.

Then there's the word 'credentials.'

As the campaign began, the Globe and Mail ran an editorial about Ignatieff and the Tories' "ugly and impoverished" attack ads that characterize Ignatieff essentially as un-Canadian because of his years abroad as a distinguished writer and scholar.

It's the Canadian version of the "birthers" attack on U.S. President Barack Obama.

The editorial, Let's not make it personal, called Ignatieff "an extraordinary Canadian," but it wasn't an endorsement of Ignatieff or his party. It was a plea to debate the issues.

"These personal attacks have benefited from an unfortunate national prejudice," the editorial said, "that views success abroad with suspicion or, in its extreme form, contempt."

There's that C-word we started with.

Of course, what it will come down to is the most important C-word of all: Canadians. It's you, the voters, who will try to cut through all the attack ads and past the posturing.

And yes, alas, even the pundits.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2011 B1

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