OTTAWA — It was a campaign that lasted so long it went through several distinct waves, each convulsion pushing and pulling voters in new directions.
Ten days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed up at Rideau Hall on the hot and hazy August long weekend and the campaigns got off to a lazy start, his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, was on the stand at the criminal trial of Sen. Mike Duffy.
Wright’s testimony, and that of others from the Prime Minister’s Office, would dominate the campaign for two full weeks, fueling a constant barrage of awkward questions for Harper that infuriated his supporters.
“Mr. Harper has not been truthful with Canadians. That has become abundantly clear from the emails that have been released and Canadians deserve better,” charged the energized NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
But as summer dragged on and the trial was put on hiatus, attention drifted elsewhere— until this Sunday, when Benjamin Perrin, the former lawyer in the PMO throughout the Duffy affair, issued a statement saying the Conservatives were unfit to govern.
By the end of August, the Duffy wave had been swept away by the deficit wave. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau broke with convention and declared he had no intention of balancing the books for the first couple of years of a Liberal government — all while accusing his rivals for being disingenuous for claiming they would.
When Statistics Canada data released at the end of August showed a contraction in the Canadian economy during the first two quarters of 2015, the Liberals and the NDP were quick to blame Harper. But the NDP insisted it would still be able to avoid a deficit — leading to a several days of parties throwing numbers at each other and the electorate.
Harper was on a roll, mocking Trudeau using a “teeny-tiny” finger gesture to suggest Liberals would run the country into the ground.
“I guess it turns out the budget doesn’t balance itself after all, but he’ll run, he says, a modest deficit — a tiny deficit, so small you can hardly see the deficit. That’s what he said,” a sarcastic Harper sneered.
But the recession-and-deficit bunfight, which party strategists saw coming from weeks away, was washed away by a photo of a boy lying dead on a Turkish beach — the victim of a disastrous attempt to escape the fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The boy’s family had wanted to come to Canada. And with the three parties locked in a tight three-way tie that polls exposed during the first half of the election campaign, each party sought to show itself more compassionate than the others.
The Liberals and the NDP quickly revamped their plans to bring more refugees to Canada. The Conservatives promised to do more, but stressed loudly the need for military intervention against ISIL. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that details of their new plan for Syrian refugees was explained.
By that time, however, the campaign had taken a surprising turn, consumed by an issue few predicted at the outset: the debate about the niqab, and whether the face-covering could be worn at citizenship ceremonies.
Harper seized on a court ruling that would allow someone to wear a face-covering during a citizenship ceremony, declaring he would appeal the ruling and, in the next government, pass legislation that would ban it once and for all.
The move prompted an immediate disavowal from the Liberals, but threw the NDP into conniptions. Mulcair’s base of support is in Quebec, where anti-niqab sentiment runs highest.
Eventually, Mulcair also opposed Harper’s stance on the niqab. But Mulcair was taking a hit in popular support in Quebec.
The issue became a “wake-up call to Quebecers about the NDP and Mulcair,” said McGill political science professor Antonia Maioni.
“They learned something they may not have known about the party that claimed to represent the interests and values of Quebecers,” Maioni said. “That opened a wedge for voters to take another look at the NDP — still a relatively new party in Quebec — as a whole.”
As Mulcair’s support waned and his national public opinion numbers slid, the campaign shifted again and became obsessed with polls. By the end of September, the burning election question for the large majority of people said to want to get rid of Harper became one of who can best replace him. And the Liberals seemed to have an edge.
The momentum appeared to feed on itself throughout October, mainly at the expense of the NDP. But the Conservative campaign is rife with rumours about losing rafts of seats not just in Atlantic Canada, but also in the greater Toronto area, and perhaps even a handful in Alberta — despite some newfound popularity in Quebec.
The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which the Conservatives had long hoped would bolster their economic credentials and propel them to victory, was overshadowed by bitter debate about the niqab, and questions about secrecy.
As the long campaign drew to a close, Harper’s road show took on an urgent tone. His campaign events routinely included a game-show style attack on Trudeau’s tax-and-spend platform, with Harper in shirtsleeves hosting a supporter who threw down stacks of money on a table, to the soundtrack of a cash register.
And on the final weekend, Harper appeared alongside Rob and Doug Ford — pariahs on the international stage but still popular in parts of Toronto despite their checkered past. Scrutiny of the Trudeau team and platform soared. The NDP seemed adrift. And the final outcome? Still too uncertain to call.
The Canadian Press