The clash over coalitions on the campaign’s first day

There’s nothing like starting a campaign by calling your opponent an outright liar

There’s nothing like a campaign that opens with the two main combatants essentially accusing each other of the being outright liars.

So it was on the first day of the 41st Canadian general election, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff hurling accusations of mendacity at each other over the matter of parliamentary coalitions.

Ignatieff had faced insistent questioning from reporters the day before on whether he would contemplate entering into a coalition with the other opposition parties if his Liberals placed second in the May 2 vote, in a bid to deny Harper the chance to form another minority government even if his Tories place first.

In a bid to prevent that line of inquiry from dominating the campaign’s earliest stages, Ignatieff put out a news release this morning ruling out a coalition with the NDP, in favour of “issue-by-issue collaboration with other parties” if there’s another minority Parliament.

As for the Bloc Québécois, Ignatieff went further—swearing off not only coalitions with the Bloc, but also any “formal arrangement” at all. (The fall 2008 attempt by the Liberals and the NDP to forge a coalition to oust the Tories sparked a popular backlash largely because they were relying on formal support from the separatist Bloc.)

Ignatieff said he issued this morning’s detailed position to counter Harper’s unrelenting insistence that a Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition is inevitable if the Conservatives fail to secure a majority. “Mr. Harper has engaged in a systematic pattern of falsehood about this,” Ignatieff said, “and I want to make the record clear so that we can get on and debate the issues that really matter to Canadians.”

However, Harper said that even after so explicit a commitment, Ignatieff’s word can’t be trusted, since his predecessor, Stéphane Dion, also said in the 2008 campaign that he wouldn’t enter into a coalition. “Their record is clear—deny it in an election and do it afterwards,” Harper said. “So that is the choice that faces Canadians realistically. A stable national Conservative majority government or an unstable coalition and all the economic and political risk that goes with that.”

Beyond emphasizing the notion of a secret coalition conspiracy among the opposition parties, Harper presented himself as the voice of “stability” in uncertain economic times: “For Conservatives, economic recovery is our focus; economic recovery is our plan; and we will continue to use each and every day of a renewed mandate to complete our economic recovery, to provide growth, jobs and financial security for Canadian families.”

And once he was finished trying to contain the coalition controversy, Ignatieff set about portraying his party as a vehicle for new programs.  “A vote for a Liberal government is a vote for your family’s priorities: child care spaces for your kids; help with the rising costs of college and university; a family care plan that helps you care for loved ones at home; stronger public health care; stronger public pensions; Canadian leadership on the world stage; and equal opportunity for every Canadian family.”

Their approaches on Day One suggests a classic clash shaping up between a clear front-runner and a challenger desperate to close the gap. Harper’s interest is in keeping voters focused on what they like about the status quo. Ignatieff’s strategic aim has to be to inspire voters to be interesting in positive change.

Against that backdrop, the coalition notion works for Harper—it’s a strange concept bound to make many voters feel the tug of the more familiar formula of the first-place party running the country. For Ignatieff, the more voters dwell on the possibility of odd parliamentary outcomes, the less they’ll be paying attention to the substance of his platform.

So Harper’s will aim to keep coalition uncertainty front and centre. Ignatieff needs to unload enough interesting policy to bury it. The tone of the rest of the campaign will likely depends on who succeeds most.