The resemblance between this federal election and the Australian one of 1996 is uncanny. In both cases, a centre-left government has been in office for 13 years - the Liberals in Canada and the Australian Labour Party (ALP) in Australia. And just as a tired ALP headed by Paul Keating faced a resurgent conservative force led by current Australian Prime Minister John Howard a decade ago, Paul Martin is facing a confident Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper today.
But more important for Canadians is the fact that Mr. Harper's party is employing the same campaign tactics that Mr. Howard first used in 1996 for his landslide win and that he has used to great effect in three successive elections.
As The Globe and Mail disclosed on Jan. 7, it's no accident that the Harper campaign feels like it has been ripped straight from the pages of the John Howard campaign manual. Mr. Howard's national campaign director, Brian Loughnane, is advising the Conservatives; last fall, Conservative Party strategists closely watched the tactics used by Mr. Howard to record his fourth election victory.
Mr. Howard's electoral success can be put down to his capacity to capture the support of working-class and lower-middle-class families who used to vote for the ALP; he did this by lining their pockets with tax cuts and middle-class welfare payments, such as cash bonuses for new mothers. And he appealed to their moral conservatism and desire to slow down the pace of social change.
In 1996, Mr. Howard's campaign slogan was "For all of us." Mr. Howard said the ALP was more interested in what he called "elite" issues such as aboriginal reconciliation, Australian republicanism and the arts.
Mr. Howard's phrase for those who have switched their support from the ALP to his Liberal Party is "mainstream Australians." These voters, who primarily live in the western suburbs of Sydney and southeast Queensland, don't like gay marriage. They fear social change; Muslim and Asian migrants moving into their neighbourhoods scares them. They believe aboriginal Australians get too much welfare. They like tough-on-crime policies. And they focus on their economic bottom line - they like tax cuts and low interest rates.
The beauty of capturing these voters' support is that, for a left-of-centre political force such as the ALP to win them back, it has to shift to the right - and that causes public brawling among its membership and makes the party seem a weak alternative to Mr. Howard's.
Mr. Harper's strategy appears to be a carbon copy of that adopted by the Liberal Party in Australia. Just as Mr. Howard uses the phrase "mainstream Australians," Mr. Harper talks about giving "mainstream Canadians" a tax cut and offering tough anti-crime policies.
And just as Mr. Howard accused Mr. Keating's ALP government of pandering to special interests, a key plank of Mr. Harper's campaign rhetoric is to accuse both the Liberals and the NDP of being out of touch with "ordinary" Canadian families. The NDP, Mr. Harper said, is "for high taxes, it's soft on crime, and it puts the demands of special interests ahead of the needs of ordinary working families."
Mr. Harper and Mr. Howard parallel each other in one other key respect. Mr. Howard is the most conservative prime minister in postwar Australia. He is determined to dismantle his country's egalitarian societal values and replace them with a society that is underpinned by concepts such as rewarding self-reliance, small government, tougher welfare policies, and moral conservatism.
What has made Mr. Howard so politically ruthless is his belief that his conservative predecessor, Malcolm Fraser (prime minister from 1975 to 1983), squandered an opportunity to do what Mr. Howard is now doing.
As Globe columnist John Ibbitson has noted, Mr. Harper was disappointed that the Mulroney government had not pursued a harder-edged libertarian agenda. If Mr. Harper wins this election, he will no doubt put that right.
If Canadians are asking themselves what a Harper government would do to their country, they just have to look at John Howard's Australia today.
Greg Barns, a lawyer based in Australia, is writing a book comparing Canada and Australia over the period 1968 to 2004.