OTTAWA — Be afraid, says Stephen Harper. Be very afraid.
Polls suggesting the main federal parties are all still in this election had their leaders kicking off the campaign's post-Labour Day phase Tuesday by confronting the scenarios that could ensue after the Oct. 19 vote.
For Harper, that meant his starkest warning yet about the fates that could be in store for voters who stray from the Conservative path.
"We are fighting for — and we believe there will be — a Conservative government," Harper said during a campaign event in Mississauga, Ont., where he announced another taxpayer-friendly measure.
"But the reality is that this is a real choice for Canadians, and an NDP government or a Liberal government are real possibilities."
The prospect of cross-party alliances, including the contentious question of a multi-party coalition, also reared its head Tuesday. But all three leaders were determined to carve some daylight between their parties.
Harper, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau added economic planks to their platforms, throttling up their campaigns to full speed after more than a month of summer stumping.
Mulcair, who had his sights set primarily on Harper throughout most of August, appeared to be targeting his seemingly resurgent Liberal rival's lack of experience in an evening speech at a rally in downtown Toronto.
Trudeau has promised several years of deficits, said Mulcair, and he voted in favour of the Harper government's anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51, after initially opposing it. Trudeau has pledged to amend Bill C-51, if elected.
"Is that the change we need?" the NDP leader said. "How can Canadians trust a person who so easily abandons one principle for another?"
With no breakaway front-runner emerging, all three leaders faced questions Tuesday about whether they might try to join forces with a rival party if the election produces a minority result.
Harper held firm to his anti-coalition stance, saying the party that wins the most seats gets a chance to form the government.
"That's always been my view. I've lived by that and I hope that party is us," said Harper, who told CBC on the weekend that if it isn't, he would step down as prime minister.
Harper's latest campaign promise would increase the government's contribution for low- and middle-income families who invest in education savings plans.
The plan would see the government contribute $200 for the first $500 invested each year by a family earning up to $44,000. For a family earning up to $88,000, the government's cut would be $100.
Campaigning in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Trudeau said Canadians don't want a coalition if a party fails to win a majority, but reiterated Liberal willingness to co-operate with other parties to pass legislation.
"We will always be open to working with others, but the fact is Canadians aren't interested in formal coalitions," Trudeau said, before he promised major changes to the employment-insurance system.
Trudeau's plan includes cutting premiums, more for the provinces for skills training, and a reduction in wait time for a first payment to one week from two.
"One of the things that is very, very clear is that Mr. Harper has got more than 60 per cent of Canadians wanting to see someone else as prime minister," Trudeau added.
Mulcair sidestepped questions about his position on coalitions at an event in Montreal, where he pledged new funding for the aerospace industry.
"We, of course, have raised that issue any number of times: In 2008, we went so far as to write a formal coalition agreement with the Liberals," Mulcair said.
"They turned up their nose on their own signature and, seven years later, Stephen Harper is still there."
Like Trudeau, Mulcair said he was focused on defeating the Conservatives.
Mulcair promised a $160-million fund to help small- and medium-sized aerospace companies adopt new technology and increase production to increase their global competitiveness. He also said he would lead trade delegations to major international industry events to help promote Canadian companies.
In an interview with CBC television on Monday night, Harper said he would not serve as prime minister if the Conservatives finish in second place, even by a close margin.
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