Michael Den Tandt: Why everyone’s making a mad dash for the middle — of the country and political spectrum

With the Mike Duffy trial boring its way daily into the public consciousness, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are on the ropes.

Or are they? Much now depends on whether either of the two main opposition parties can translate the bounty of the Ol’ Duff into a plurality of votes.

Success, paradoxically, looks likely to go to whichever of the Liberals or New Democrats can most persuasively cast themselves as populist, small-c conservatives — especially in seat-rich Ontario. At this juncture, it’s unclear whether either can pull it off.

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: no longer has a federal party of the left, centre and right, supplemented by the Greens off on the fringe. There are three centrist parties, with slightly different tones that, to a European socialist or rightist, would appear virtually indistinguishable.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickConservative Leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Ottawa on Sunday, August 16, 2015.

The Harper Tories, with their string of big Keynesian deficits beginning in 2009 and their smorgasbord of targeted tax breaks, are as fond of state intervention as the Jean Chretien Liberals ever were; today’s New Democrats are all about cutting small-business taxes and balancing budgets.

The Liberals are campaigning on a middle-class tax cut and expanded child benefit drawn directly from the late Conservative Jim Flaherty’s populist playbook.

This isn’t to say there aren’t important differences, but rather that the focal points are not what they were in the 1980s, ’90s and even the first decade of this century, because the major parties no longer take positions in economic and social policy that are at odds with the views of the majority, as discerned by internal polling.

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An exception is the NDP’s position in favour of redrawing the rules for Quebec separation. But even there, the policy reflects the NDP’s heavy reliance on soft nationalists in its Quebec base, as opposed to a desire to shepherd English Canada to a new acceptance that 50-per-cent-plus one in a referendum should be the threshold for igniting negotiations on separation.

Mulcair doggedly defends his stance because he has no better option. He would be far better off never having to mention Clarity west of Ottawa, and every New Democrat outside Quebec knows it.

What we’re left with is a campaign dominated mostly by arguments over shadings of economic policy – whose tax-cut and childcare package offers the greatest benefit for the greatest number – and much more politically potent questions about the character and quality of leadership, reinforced this year by the Senate scandal and the natural cyclical momentum for change.

The change sought by two thirds of voters, tellingly, is not so much about policy, as it is a recycling of bums in seats.

An Ipsos poll released Friday found that, though Conservative support is mired in the low 30s, fully 40 per cent of those polled – enough to translate into a small majority, given vote-splitting among the other parties —  approve of the government’s performance, either somewhat (30 per cent) or strongly (11 per cent.)

Add to that Ontario’s outsize population heft – the province holds 121 or 36 per cent of seats in the next parliament – and the fact that the three main parties remain deadlocked at or around 30 per cent there, in contrast with big leads by the NDP in Quebec (35.9 per cent versus 23.8 per cent for the Grits, 19.1 per cent for the Tories and 17.7 per cent for the Bloc, in the aggregate as measured by ThreeHundredEight.com) and B.C. (37.8 per cent versus 26 per cent for the Conservatives and 25 per cent for the Liberals), and you have a looming central Canadian struggle for the hearts and minds of voters who, as the old Tory slogan had it, “work hard and play by the rules” and appreciate a generous boutique tax credit.

This explains why, rather than put, say, Olivia Chow, up against Finance Minister Joe Oliver in the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence, Mulcair opted to field Andrew Thomson, a former Saskatchewan finance minister with a record of cutting taxes and balancing budgets.

It also explains the NDP leader’s effort in the first leaders’ debate, with mixed results, to portray himself as sober-minded and rational, rather than volatile or combative.

The bet is Ontarians will simply overlook the multi-billion-dollar cost of NDP promises, and the likely depressive economic impact of corporate tax hikes, and trust Mulcair will mind the store like a tight-fisted Prairie notary.

Trudeau, for his part, has three tasks, assuming this dynamic holds true; first, to seize every opportunity to defend his platform from critiques on the Left, say of his expansive posture vis-à-vis the oil patch; to play up any of his candidates with credibility on Bay Street, such as former C.D. Howe chairman Bill Morneau, and those with anti-terrorist credentials, such as Andrew Leslie and Marco Mendicino (the latter also, interestingly, pitted against Oliver in Eglinton-Lawrence); and most importantly, to avoid allowing himself to be cast as a mushy nanny-stater in the mould of former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty and his successor, Premier Kathleen Wynne.

About Michael Den Tandt