Harper demonstrates unscripted words can turn a campaign around quickly

Tim Naumetz

Anything can happen in a campaign, turning the landscape upside down at the bat of an eyelash.

Ask any Liberal, New Democrat or Conservative who ran in the watershed series of three elections from 1984 to 1993, the last one leaving the old Conservative party barely alive in the House of Commons, clinging by a fingernail only nine years after Brian Mulroney led the party to the largest federal majority in Canadian history.

There are five weeks left before the May 2 vote, but Stephen Harper may already have passed through that no-return moment, magic sometimes, in the sense that no one really notices it until the post-mortem.

It is really difficult to imagine that Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals will be able to bridge the vast distance between the 77 seats they held in the Commons before the election call Saturday, and the 143 seats occupied by Harper and his Conservatives.

It would take a shift of voter opinion in 34 ridings just for Ignatieff to barely overtake Harper and end up with a razor-thin Liberal minority of 111 seats, and that’s if the NDP and Bloc Quebecois positions hold firm, and does not even include the three vacancies in Alberta and B.C. at the end of the 40th Parliament that will unquestionably return to the Conservative fold for the 41st Parliament.

But even if Ignatieff doesn’t get that far, the way things stand it’s highly possible he will at least close the gap between now and election day.

This may be a bit of an overstatement, but at the starting gate, Ignatieff was breathing fire.

His best line, the one that will linger throughout the campaign, came after Harper accused him of deceit. It was over the precisely drafted statement Ignatieff released pledging he would not try to usurp first place and attempt a coalition government if the Liberals place second once more under a Tory minority.

Harper, in an unscripted moment and in hasty reaction to the Ignatieff statement, made a mistake.

It was the kind of fumble that can happen in the rough and tumble quick action of an election, away from the controlled setting of the House of Commons, where the prime minister always gets the last word.

Harper, who really did sound a bit rattled, called Ignatieff’s written promise a “little tidbit” in a news release. Then, oddly, maybe even incomprehensively, he accused the liberals of “trying to set it as a hidden agenda” and that Ignatieff declared his position in writing because “he couldn’t deny it in front of the cameras.”

In another few moments, so short and yet pivotal in a campaign, Ignatieff replied at his own news event: “He wouldn’t recognize the truth if it walked up and shook his hand.”

Freeze frame that, and go back to Harper, at Rideau Hall.

Continuing down the unscripted road, looking and sounding even more unsure of himself, Harper did the one sure thing that had his script masters shuddering, he referred to the possibility his party might win only another minority.

In the brief but explosive chain of events, drama always associated with the big picture at the outset of a campaign, another, perhaps more significant aspect of Ignatieff’s statement went overlooked.

“Whoever leads the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government,”  Ignatieff wrote.

“If that is the Liberal Party, then I will be required to rapidly seek the confidence of the newly elected Parliament.  If our government cannot win the support of the House, then Mr. Harper will be called on to form a government and face the same challenge.  That is our Constitution.  It is the law of the land.”

Ignatieff, not even brushing the prospect his party might place second, went on for several paragraphs promising his government would attempt to work with the other parties by building support “issue by issue” – as Harper has in fact done for the past five years.

Then, toward the end of the statement, he asked Harper a question he might try to avoid for the rest of the campaign.

“Does he agree with how I have described the workings of our democratic system?” asked Ignatieff.

Harper was available to reporters only twice in the week leading up to his Rideau Hall ceremony. Once was on Wednesday, the day after the three opposition leaders vowed to oppose his government’s budget. The second time was on Friday, when he took his House seat to vote against the Liberal confidence motion. During that entire time, he entered the Commons only twice, and took only two questions from the press gallery.

That scripted luxury does not exist in a campaign.