Here are what I think are the gaffes made by each leader in the last several weeks, ones that I believe have (and will) cost them dearly.
Michael Ignatieff. He had the media on his side going into the English leadership debate. Thanks to the Auditor General’s damning report about Conservative spending at the G8/G20, leaked on the eve of the debates, all he had to do was keep saying “$100,000 gazebo” and “$300,000 toilets in Tony Clement’s riding,” to remind people how damning that report was. He missed that opportunity.
Ignatieff also seemed to forget that it was a debate. Steve Paikin was supposed to moderate, but compared to the moderators in the French debates, he barely intervened at all. Instead, Harper was allowed to ‘rag the puck’ while Ignatieff stood with his hand up, like a student seeking permission to answer a question, waiting for Paikin to notice him. When he did gain entry, he acted as if he’d been given some talking points with instructions to repeat them over and over. But it was live television, not a speech where only a few seconds might make it to the National as a sound bite. It made him seem terribly rehearsed.
Ignatieff needed to come off as likable, warm, the way Layton managed to be. (Ignatieff pulled this off in the second, French, debate, but I’m not sure how many people were watching outside of Quebec.) He could have done this by being himself, by pointing out, for example, that his wife was sitting in the front row at his request because he was a little apprehensive about his first debate and wanted to know she was close by.
Layton’s comments on Ignatieff’s attendance in the House clearly stunned him. He made a huge mistake by not responding then or in the media scrum afterwards, when he walked away from the same question. Within a few days, the media were declaring Layton the winner; by the time Ignatieff explained he’d been out meeting Canadians and that Ralph Goodale had been around to deal with matters in Ottawa, no-one was listening.
But the last blow was self-inflicted. In an interview with Peter Mansbidge, Ignatieff began to ruminate on forming a government if the Tories lost the confidence of the House, if called upon to do so by the Governor-General. He gave life to an attack that the Tories had finally stopped using because it wasn’t working, and let the Tories resurrect it with his very own words.
Instead of the public paying attention to his call to arms — his wonderful ‘Rise up’ speeches — they wondered how committed to democracy he really was if he was already planning to form a government even if the Tories won the election. Election-weary Canadians started listening to Harper’s calls for a ‘stable’ majority.
Stephen Harper. He has managed to run a campaign so tight and controlled that unless you’re a Tory, you rarely hear from him. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.)
A front-runner’s campaign is what the media called it, but it has often come off as arrogant. Still, you have to give this campaign credit for spin. The reason for the election – the historic vote of contempt — simply never happened, according to Harper: there was no court order, no finding. The Auditor-General’s report was just a ‘draft.’
But I think it was after Ignatieff’s remarks about forming a government if Harper lost the confidence of the House that Harper blew it. Harper announced that he wouldn’t modify his budget or compromise with the opposition on any part of it even if he was the leader of only a minority government, because they were going to try to defeat him anyway.
Ignatieff was able to get off one of the best (but virtually unreported) lines of the campaign in response to that extraordinary statement. He said: “Who does he [Harper] think he is? The King? Parliament is about compromise: we all have to put some water in our wine.”
Canadians want leaders who can compromise. Thanks to Harper’s intransigence, good numbers of them are now taking a closer look at Jack Layton, who has stayed alive politically by compromising on everything, including some of the NDP’s basic principles.
I think Harper’s made other serious errors. I’ve blogged extensively about the situation at the University of Guelph when students voted and Harper’s lawyer tried to nullify their votes. The Conservatives will pay for that one when students turn out to vote for other parties in larger numbers than we’ve seen for years.
Another, more recent gaffe was standing in the midst of a jeering partisan crowd as it shouted down Terry Milewski, a CBC reporter who had dared to ask a follow-up question that challenged one of Harper’s answers.
Harper had the opportunity so show some statesmanship: he could have told the crowd to quiet down, acknowledged the role of the media and answered the question, even if he chose to be deliberately evasive. Instead, he smirked and walked away without responding. In this final week, I don’t think it’s a good idea to alienate the media by being deliberately rude to them.
But his final and I think most serious mistake is the way he’s now saying openly that he’s confident of gaining a majority. That may work with the party faithful but I predict it will turn off many Canadians who don’t like their vote to be taken for granted.
Jack Layton. Plucky, is the word that comes to mind, given his surgery. Some thought he ws running a kind of lacklustre campaign pre-debates and I have to say that in the English debate, Layton looked like he was eighty years old. But the very next night, during the French debates, the old Jack was back. (Whatever he’s on now, by the way, I want some.)
His only major mistakes? Opening the Constitutional can of worms with Quebec during the French debate. And promising to make French the language of federal workplaces. Layton was pandering: easy to do when you think you have no prospect of winning but pretty dangerous if you actually achieve any power.
Those kinds of unilateral concessions, made in the hope they’ll achieve a relationship, simply lead to demands for more concessions. (Read my post on Edward’s Game, for details of why it doesn’t work). They will, I think, come back to bite him.
Gilles Duceppe. What can you say about Duceppe? He seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for campaigning. He took the vote for granted (see above) and people don’t like that. Bringing out Jacques Parizeau may have done in any chance he had of reclaiming the votes that may shift to the NDP. That dog just doesn’t hunt anymore.
And finally, Elizabeth May. Her only mistake was not already having a seat in the House. Being left out of the debates pretty much torched her party’s chances. She launched, and lost, a court action to try to get on the national debates which only confirmed that the networks have the power to do whatever they want.
The good news for May, though, is that she’s ahead in the polls in Saanich, and may defeat Gary Lunn anyway. Which will certainly change the dynamic in the House, and maybe in the next election.