Why the Conservatives’ contempt of Parliament and spending on fighter jets is suddenly old news

Where’s the outrage?

Josh Dehaas
Where's the outrage?

Where's the outrage?To kick off the campaign, Stephen Harper made his first big policy announcement in front of a crowd of supporters in Esquimalt, B.C. He said that if the budget is balanced by 2015, Canadian families with children will get a tax cut through income splitting. Afterwards, a reporter asked how he would deal with the fact his party was found in contempt of Parliament the week before. “The only democratic outrage is…” he began to say, before pausing: “Well, the economy is what this election is really about.” He went on to explain why he thinks he’s the best leader to watch over a fragile economy. Democratic outrage, it seems, is so last week.

Turns out it was, according to the 2011 Federal Election Newspaper Analysis Project, which is tracking which policy issues are written about, and the tone of the stories, through the campaign. (Maclean’s will feature the results every week.)

Between March 21 and 26, the word “contempt” came up 129 times in coverage and the word “jets” (Liberal code for Conservative overspending on F-35s) appeared 65 times in the eight English-language newspapers under study. But it wasn’t enough to prevent the debate from shifting to the question Harper prefers: which candidate will make the best economic steward? “I don’t know if that’s about successful redefinition of the campaign by the Conservatives,” says Stuart Soroka, a political scientist with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, which spearheads the project, “or whether the other parties are holding back in order to focus on policy.”

Either way, when it came to coverage of 14 campaign issues, economic themes filled stories more than anything else last week (March 21 to 26). Soroka expected the economy to be a theme as the budget came out, but not nearly to the extent that it was. More than half (52 per cent) of all news stories last week mentioned the economy, up from 34 per cent the week before. Conversely, health and education policy, two of the main issues Michael Ignatieff was talking about in the frigid Ottawa air the day the government fell, only made it into 17 per cent of stories. In newspapers, Harper was more frequently mentioned first than his rivals. He garnered 69 per cent of first mentions, well ahead of Ignatieff (18 per cent), Jack Layton (13 per cent) and Gilles Duceppe (one per cent).

All this focus on the economy and Harper is good news for the Conservatives, especially when combined with the results of an Ipsos Reid poll this week. When asked who they trust most as an economic manager, 52 per cent chose Harper, 22 per cent picked Layton, 18 per cent said Ignatieff, and seven per cent gave Duceppe the nod. “But don’t think the Conservatives own the issue,” says Soroka. “It’s all about the counter-argument. The [other candidates] can say, ‘Harper’s squandering money, he’s not a good manger, you’d be better off with us.’ It doesn’t take magic to counter.”

Perhaps that explains Ignatieff’s first major policy announcement. In Oakville, Ont., this week, the Liberal leader promised that, if elected, his government would contribute a minimum $4,000 to each child’s Registered Education Savings Plan. “You might think this is about education,” he said, looking directly into the TV cameras. “But it’s actually about the economy.” Like, it seems, pretty much everything these days.