Politics·Analysis

In this election campaign, the only constant is 'change'

The word of the week, indeed this entire campaign, is change. Of course, change can mean many different things, and if day one of the election campaign is anything to go by, Canadians are about to find out just how many.

The next 11 weeks will be a battle to define what that word means for Canadians

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair kicked off his campaign in Gatineau, Que., where he cast himself as the candidate of change but declined to answer questions from reporters. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

The word of the week, indeed this entire campaign, is change.

Of course, change can mean many different things, and Canadians are about to find out just how many.

Even the man who is perhaps the most averse to change right now will talk about it at length, as we learned on day one of the election campaign. 

For Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, change is "risky," it is "reckless," it is the thing to be avoided at all costs.

Countering the "change" themes of his rivals, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper warned of the economic and security risks of abandoning his party's program. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

What he can offer Canadians, he says, is stability.

And so, Harper spoke of the economy and the "ongoing instability" and the "threats of an increasingly dangerous world" — and, in light of all that, he urged Canadians to "stay on track."

The question, of course, is how will Harper define that track. If you cannot embody change, can you define it differently? After you've been in government for almost a decade, can you offer something new? And how can you even fight back against the powerful force of change?

That is what Harper's opponents are hoping and even banking on, being almost impossible.

The next weeks will be a battle to corner the market on change.

A front-runner's campaign

The NDP leader may be so convinced he has succeeded with this already, that on the first day of the longest campaign in modern Canadian history, he took no questions. Zero, not a one.

 An unusual move from Thomas Mulcair, to be fair, but one that may be not repeated after the poor reception he got. 

Still, the message was clear enough.

"I want to speak to every Canadian who thinks Mr. Harper's government is on the wrong track, to every Canadian who is looking for change in Ottawa," he said.

Mulcair is banking on Canadians not only desiring a different government, but on seeing him as the only option to replace Harper. 

If this is to happen, Mulcair must first overcome some challenges that will be immediate and more pervasive than the NDP has encountered in the past.

After all, change is far easier to deal with when you're comfortable with the idea of it. 

To that end, perhaps 70-plus days will be enough to allow the NDP to convince Canadians to contemplate something they have never done before, on the federal level anyway: an NDP government.

But it all will come with a far more intense level of scrutiny than ever before.

In 2008, and again in 2011, when then-NDP leader Jack Layton announced he was vying for the top job as prime minister of Canada, journalists and others scoffed. 

Now that most public opinion polls have the NDP in the lead, this statement generates much less derision, but also forces everyone to demand more details.

So when Mulcair proclaims, as he did today, "We will kick-start the economy and get Canadians back to work," and then does not take questions to explain the "how," he would be wise to prepare himself for the onslaught that will come. If the answers don't meet the inquiry, the change he believes he personifies, will be rejected.

More than just different

All the way on the other side of the country, there was another leader talking change. His change, so different, so stark, that he didn't even need to react to the election call until hours later.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made a risky move of delaying his appearance before the cameras to fly to Vancouver, but as a result could claim to be the candidate who does things differently. (CBC)

If you wanted a visual demonstration of change, there was Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in Vancouver, on the coast, with picturesque mountains in the background.

Trudeau called his offer "real change," as opposed to what he calls Harper's "failed plan" or Mulcair's "mirage." Trudeau is blowing against two winds of change, from the left and from the right, so he tried to make them seem similar, pointing to the fact the NDP would, for one, actually keep the Conservatives' universal child care benefit in place. 

"The NDP will talk about helping the middle class, but they won't raise taxes on the wealthiest Canadians, and Mr. Mulcair won't cut taxes for the middle class," Trudeau said.

Trudeau may have less to lose, at least right now, so he can afford to launch his campaign in a different time zone than the others and take more questions than journalists can even think of at his first press conference.

But change must be about more than simply appearing different.

It must also be about being credible and believable and convincing.

The fight for that terrain has now begun in earnest.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.

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