After four full weeks of the longest federal election campaign in 140 years, what have we learned about the parties, the issues and ourselves?

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This article was published 31/8/2015 (2114 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

After four full weeks of the longest federal election campaign in 140 years, what have we learned about the parties, the issues and ourselves?

The first and most profound discovery is that calling a 77-day election campaign in a cynical bid to outspend your less well-funded opponents is a silly strategy. Perhaps the silliest electoral strategy ever.

We also learned governments that pass fixed-date election laws have only themselves to blame when it forces them to drop a writ at the same time members of their party are standing trial for fraud and bribery.

(As a corollary, we also know that appointing former journalists to the Senate is a political decision that will likely come back to haunt you for the rest of your life.)

However, the most important revelation at this stage of the campaign is that Canadian voters appear poised to change politics forever in this country.

For a very long time in Canada, voters have asked either the Liberal party or some version of the Conservative party to form government. In fact, since Confederation, only once have Canadians elected a government other than Liberal or Conservative, giving the Unionist Party a victory in the bitter 1917 election. And that party was a hastily convened coalition of Conservatives and former Liberals.

We have been a country with a two-party political marketplace. But that could very likely change in this election.

The New Democrats continue to lead most opinion polls. A batch of polls released late last week actually showed the NDP, Canada's perennial political bridesmaids, approaching 40 per cent support, the hallmark of a party on the verge of a majority mandate.

Of course, many "ifs" must be settled in the NDP's favour for that to happen. A majority is possible if: the NDP can hold or expand its formidable base of power in Quebec; it can make a significant breakthrough in Ontario, and Toronto in particular; it can pick up some seats on the Prairies and in Atlantic Canada; and it can dominate British Columbia.

That is a lot of "ifs," so many that just four weeks ago it seemed improbable verging on impossible for all of them to go in the NDP's favour. Funny how much can change in just one month of campaigning.

How has the NDP been able to sustain and build upon its surging levels of support? Leader Tom Mulcair and the NDP certainly benefit from the growing appetite among voters for change; most polls show more than seven in 10 voters want a new government in power.

However, it appears this desire for change has not benefited the Liberal party. Although Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has put in a heroic effort to redefine his party in this campaign, he has not been able to bite into the growing support for the NDP.

It seems likely the Liberals and the Conservatives are being viewed in the same context: two parties that have dominated Canadian elections, authored many scandals, and in the process worn out their welcome with voters.

Voters currently disgusted at the revelations in the fraud trial of Tory Sen. Mike Duffy do not have to go back far in their memories to recall the sleazy, brazen corruption of the federal Liberal party in Quebec during the infamous sponsorship scandal.

In this election, the change voters want could mean electing a party that has never before governed at the federal level.

This was certainly the context of the NDP's remarkable breakthrough in Quebec in the 2011 federal election. And again last spring when the Alberta NDP swept to a majority government in a province that had only shown an appetite for two kinds of party: right-wing or further right-wing.

The surprising resilience of the NDP is horrible news for both the Liberals and Conservatives.

Tory Leader Stephen Harper thought he could outspend the NDP and Liberals with their smaller war chests. After four weeks, that strategy has been a bust.

To date, the NDP has spent frugally, while the Tories have blasted Canadians with attack ads, mostly aimed at the Liberals. The Tories have outspent their opponents, as expected, and ended up lower in the polls than when they started.

A continued surge in NDP support also means the NDP-Liberal vote split Harper desperately needs to retain power will not materialize. Although the Liberals are holding their own in this close, three-way race, Trudeau has not been able to regain the glory he achieved for the better part of two years following his election as party leader.

Trudeau has run a remarkably ambitious campaign that is both creative and full of peril. He clearly sees a need to distance himself from the culture of previous Liberal governments. However, his inability to challenge Mulcair and the NDP as the No. 1 choice of a majority of Canadians suggests he may not be able to completely shed the legacy of past Liberal misdeeds.

When this campaign started out four weeks ago, it seemed highly unlikely we'd see these conditions. Of course, there are still six weeks to go, which means many opportunities to change this narrative before election day.

On the other hand, it seems more likely with every passing day voters are dedicated to shaking things up. Really shaking things up.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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