Harper is election ready. Are his opponents?

With 10 months to go before the expected October 19, 2015 election, the Harper Conservatives are running full out for re-election. Their strategy is simple. First, satisfy the party base, the some 25 per cent of eligible voters who will turn up on election day and vote Conservative. Second, suppress the Liberal vote.

The current incentive for Conservatives to vote Conservative is the so-called "Family Tax Cut." The Conservative tax relief policy will be compared to the "NDP-Liberal coalition" which wants "to increase taxes and wreck business."

The family tax cut (income-tax splitting for couples with children) is accompanied by a sweetening and broadening of the so-called Universal Child Care Benefit (a cheque per child, unrelated to child care).

The benefit is retroactive to January 1, 2015, with cheques in the mail for next July. Even friendly critics have problems with these policies, which favour upper-income families. The Conservatives did not design their policies for broad approval; the policies are designed to please only Conservatives.

The Harper government is not really interested in more than the one Canadian in four that will vote for it. Its approach is to target potential Conservative voters only.

Toronto Star national affairs columnist Tim Harper has counted 12 different visits by the prime minister to Southern Ontario since Labour Day this year. The voter-rich 905 area code is where the Conservative fortunes will be decided, and Stephen Harper is paying attention. Look for the area to receive generous favours in months to come.

Since he was chosen party leader, Liberal Justin Trudeau has been the subject of Conservative attack ads. The theme is a constant play on "just not ready to govern." The ads have not succeeded in dislodging Trudeau from his favourable popularity ranking, at least not yet. But the ads have registered with Canadians, and the message will amplify with voters should Trudeau falter in the run-up to the election, or under the intense scrutiny of a campaign.

What the Conservatives want is for Liberal voters to stay home, as they did when Stéphane Dion, and then Michael Ignatieff, were leading the party. With about a 60 per cent turnout and 25 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives win a second straight majority government.

Opposition leader Tom Mulcair has been fleshing out his own strategy in recent months. For Mulcair, only the NDP offers a real alternative to the Conservative. Historically, the Liberals like to run from the left but they prefer to govern where the Conservatives are governing from, the right.

On policy, Mulcair has a point. Compare the 1993-2004 Chrétien-Martin Liberals to the 1984-1993 Mulroney-Wilson Conservatives and there was little difference, except the Liberals were more aggressive in cutting spending and reducing taxes than the Conservatives.

Mulcair is out talking about policies Canadians can expect to see from an NDP government: higher corporate taxes, a $15 federal minimum wage, a $15 per day maximum national child care program, and an end to income-splitting (a.k.a. the family tax cut) that principally benefits 15 per cent of (wealthy) Canadians families.

Leading with policy changes designed to align voters with the values defended by the NDP also allows Mulcair to contrast his party with the Trudeau Liberals.

Based on the well-known practice of offending as few people as possible, Trudeau has refrained from announcing policy on basic issues such as the economy, social policy, foreign policy or the environment.

The thinking -- refined by advisers steeped in political messaging -- is that so long as Trudeau remains undefined, voters can project their own views onto him. The more Trudeau commits himself to policy planks, the less voters are free to define him as they wish, and the more they can turn away. 

Expect Trudeau to speak out on issues with wide appeal that distinguish him from the Conservatives, as he did on de-criminalizing marijuana possession. If he decides to get specific, it will only cost him support.

The Conservatives already have changed the electoral law to make it more difficult to vote. People without a driver's license or a passport will have difficulty meeting the new voter identification requirement under the unfair Fair Elections Act.

The same law enables the use of electronic devices by parties working at polls on election days. The Conservative-linked ProxiVote has software it thinks will give the party an advantage in getting out the vote.

In promoting their re-election, the Conservatives legislate their own advantages, proving the point that Stephen Harper will do whatever it takes to win the next election.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Jason Ransom/pmwebphotos/flickr

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