Harper lays an election trap

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National party leaders are criss-crossing Canada testing their messages with supporters and would-be-supporters. In the two-week period before the House of Commons resumes at the end of January, Stephen Harper, Jack Layton, and Michael Ignatieff are off and running in a national pre-election campaign mode.

The Conservatives are leading in the polls, but without enough popular support to win a majority. Looking to make a significant move upwards in the next weeks, Harper has adopted a two-stage "Here for Canada" strategy to ready his party to win the additional 12 seats he needs for a parliamentary majority.

The Conservatives are again running attack ads aimed at destroying Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as an opponent: "He did not come back for you." Expect to see a lot of the one where a decade ago Ignatieff was captured on video identifying himself as an American.

Putting Ignatieff on the defensive, make him struggle to defend his very identity as a Canadian sets up the Liberal Party for the knockout blow. The Conservatives have a wedge they plan to drive into every constituency on the Canadian electoral map to separate themselves from the Liberals, and the NDP: the Conservatives are the only party that have the trust of business.

This tactic is borrowed from the American Republican playbook. In the U.S., business has a long history of trying to undermine government regulatory intervention in markets, especially by Democrats. For example, early after his election in 1960, U.S. President John F. Kennedy forced American steel companies to agree not to raise prices, as part of a national effort to dampen inflationary forces. Not long after, the companies raised steel prices. Their logic has since been revealed. If Kennedy had let them get away with breaking their pledge, they could pocket the extra profits. If he chose instead to denounce the steel companies, and take action against them (as he did), the companies could claim the president was anti-business (and they did).

The same reasoning is behind the Harper government's intention to continue with scheduled corporate tax cuts in the next budget. Given the importance of economic recovery, it is important to support business says the prime minister; those like the Liberals or NDP who oppose further corporate income tax cuts are anti-business, he underlines.

Harper expects the Liberals to spring his trap by voting against the 2011 budget (awaited in late February or early March). The budget will affirm that further tax cuts will take place. The trap is part of a broader strategy of using the Conservatives' main ally, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, to send a message: the Conservative support business, Ignatieff does not. This past week the prime minister announced his government was moving ahead to reduce red tape constraining business. Coincidently January is reduce-red-tape month at the CFIB.

The Canadian Labour Congress had general support from the federal government and virtually all provinces (until Alberta came out strongly against) for a doubling of Canada Pension Plan Benefits over the next decade. Opposition from the CFIB caused the Harper government to step back from supporting expansion of public pensions. Instead the finance minister suggested recourse to a new private pension mechanism would meet the retirement income needs of Canadians.

Should any party wish to avoid a spring election, the poison pill which will force all three opposition parties to vote against the Spring Budget is withdrawal of public financing of political parties through ending the direct subsidy of about $2 per vote that goes to parties that win seats in the House of Commons. (Support from any one opposition party and the budget vote passes, and the Conservatives survive.) The public money the Conservatives and other parties receive through the tax credit given to Canadians who contribute to registered political parties, and which primarily benefits the Conservatives who have more donors, will, of course, not be affected by the poison pill.

While the Conservatives are accusing Ignatieff of pushing for an election, it is only the Conservatives that can force all the three other parties to vote against its budget through the use of such a poison pill.

Watch the Conservative numbers. If the attack ads, and the pre-budget posturing as the pro-business party -- designed to drive Conservative polling support up -- succeed, so that a majority is in their grasp, count on going to the polls this spring.

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of rabble.ca.

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