Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Advice to ignore

John Geddes takes his shot at analyzing the impending election:
New Democrats are looking way past last year's disappointment for cautionary tales. They recall all too vividly how voters effectively punished them for propping up Liberal minorities in the early sixties and seventies. After using their House leverage to inßuence policy, New Democrats watched the Liberals bounce back at their expense. Could Layton's success last spring in reshaping the Liberal budget similarly fail to boost his party's ballot box clout? Jamie Heath, Layton's communications director, admits that is a real possibility. And an even more sustained negative Liberal campaign, designed to stoke voter fears about the Conservatives, seems to heighten the prospect of the NDP losing visibility in a highly polarized race. "It's consistent with the Liberal Party of Canada's approach over many years," Heath said.

Nobody is hoping the NDP avoids that fate more than the Conservatives. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Tory strategy is what the party's strategists hope Harper will not have to do -- if Layton plays the role they hope he will. "A dream campaign for us is if the NDP can stay consistent -- and, Lord, please help them -- in attacking the Liberals every day on health care," said one senior Conservative. "We'll take care of attacking them on Gomery." The idea is that Layton has credibility when it comes to defending public health, which Harper lacks -- especially with Alberta's Tory government making untimely noises about health reforms that would shift toward more private care.
Now, if the statement from the Con strategist could be taken as a promise (i.e. that the Cons would talk about nothing but Gomery if the NDP would talk about nothing but health care), this would be an awfully tempting strategy for the NDP. But of course, neither party will want to be so limited in its scope of discussion. And in any event, this isn't the time for the NDP to start taking Conservative advice.

While health should indeed be one of the party's primary areas of attack, those attacks can't focus on only one other party. The NDP needs to use its credibility advantage on the issue to make clear not only that the Liberals have failed miserably, but also that the Cons would be at least as likely to do the same.

Moreover, there are larger governance issues than Gomery alone. Indeed, the health care issue itself is another symptom of the greater problems with a government which is eager to spend money but unwilling to take responsibility for its actions.

To capitalize on the bigger issue, the NDP's campaign needs to highlight the party's superior fiscal track record, and make clear that it's the party most interested in holding all future governments to high standards. If that position can stay in the headlines in contrast to a Conservative attack based narrowly on criticizing PMPM over the Gomery findings, then the NDP's current climb in the polls could be just the beginning.

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