Harper raising trust issues - about himself

It's early days, but Stephen Harper could be blowing the election. He's making himself look like someone who shouldn't be trusted to govern.
Harper's harping on the threat of an evil NDP-Bloc-Liberal coalition offers the best example of the problem.
It was a decent enough gambit to kick off the campaign.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion had attempted to forge a coalition government with the NDP in 2008, supported by the Bloc Quebecois.
Coalition governments are unfamiliar - though not unheard of - in Canada. (Though Britain has had one since last May.) And many people would object to a formal Bloc Quebecois role in a coalition.
So it was reasonable for Harper to claim that unless the Conservatives won a majority the three opposition parties might come up with a common program and form a government.
Then Michael Ignatieff clearly ruled out a coalition.
That might have been foolish; a Liberal-NDP government could be preferable to another election. But it made continued dramatic warnings about a coalition less credible, more bluster than substance.
Still, Harper might have been able to keep up the attacks.
Except NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe said Harper had laid plans to form a coalition government with them in 2004 if the Liberal minority government fell on a non-confidence motion.
The three leaders even signed a letter to then governor general Adrienne Clarkson urging her not to automatically call an election if the government fell, but to consult the opposition parties and "consider all of your options."
That sounds like a coalition. And Tom Flanagan, Harper's former chief of staff, said the goal in 2004 was to install Harper as prime minister with the support of the other two parties.
Then a TV interview from 1997 emerged, in which Harper predicted the Liberals would eventually lose office when they were in a minority, with the largest number of seats. The opposition parties could then co-operate and form a "coalition" to govern, he said.
A fair observer would conclude Harper was attacking Ignatieff, who had rejected a coalition, even though he had tried to form one and publicly supported the principle.
The big problem is Harper's response. He didn't drop the claims or say he once thought coalitions were OK but had changed his mind.
Harper came up with excuses and evasions. He claimed he hadn't been talking about governing coalitions, but about uniting the right.
That's simply not credible given the letter to the governor general and the clear statement in the TV interview.
That creates a trust issue. If voters believe Harper will say anything to win - even in the face of evidence that he's being hypocritical at best, dishonest at worst - they will wonder if they can trust any promises he makes over the course of the campaign.
And that's a damaging, a self-inflicted wound.
Harper made another serious stumble. When Green leader Elizabeth May was barred from the leadership debates Wednesday, Harper said he was "open to any number of possibilities," including May's participation.
"We could also have a debate between Mr. Ignatieff and myself," Harper said. "After all, the real choice in this election is a choice between a Conservative government or an Ignatieff-led government that all of these other parties will support." (That coalition thing again.)
Great, Ignatieff said. Let's have a one-on-one debate.
But the next day, Harper was in retreat. He's only willing to do the two group debates, one in English and one in French, he said. He refused to debate Ignatieff.
And Harper dodged the debate on the same day questions were raised about his tightly controlled campaign. Unlike the other leaders, he will only take five questions a day - four from the journalists on the campaign, one from local media. There are no public events; only Conservative supporters on pre-approved lists can attend.
The election was seen as Harper's to lose. Based on the early days, he might.
Footnote: Getting bounced from the debate got May great media coverage, and she should have been included. More importantly, the TV companies should have clear, consistent criteria for their decisions and the debate schedules. The backroom deals between companies and parties breed suspicion.

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