Not any more

A fall election?

In Canada on August 3, 2010 at 08:42

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Tuesday, August 3, 2010 7:43 AM

A fall election?

Brian Topp

If there is to be a fall election this year, it is being planned now. There are therefore two possibilities with regard to recently low-profile Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Possibility one: in recent weeks he has been taking a summer break with his family. Possibility two: in recent weeks he has been holed up with advisors planning a campaign.

The former option seems more likely.

To see why, let’s tune in our friends at ThreeHundredEight.com. The site manager there has clearly caught up on his sleep and has posted a number of interesting new articles. Look, for example, at his piece on the most recent Harris-Decima poll, released on July 27.

That poll suggests the Conservatives enjoyed the support of 31 per cent of Canadians. The Liberals had 26 per cent, the New Democrats 18 per cent, and the Bloc 41 per cent in Quebec (10 per cent in the national numbers). ThreeHundredEight.com credibly projects that these numbers would elect 120 Conservatives, 92 Liberals, 41 New Democrats, and 55 MPs from the Bloc Québécois.

Small wonder, then, that conservative-minded columnists have constitutional conventions on their minds these days. My thoughtful and always-interesting blogging colleague Norman Spector, for example, recently challenged readers to think of any Canadian precedent for the party with the most seats not becoming the government.

There is a definitive Canadian precedent. Frank Miller’s Conservatives were handed 52 seats in the 1985 Ontario election. But David Peterson’s Liberals formed a government with 48 seats, thanks to an accord with Bob Rae’s 25 New Democrats.

The Harris-Decima poll suggests that at this political moment, absent any further development, Mr. Harper’s Conservatives would face a similarly difficult Parliament (from their perspective) where they to chance an election. Or would they?

There is a new element in this calculus.

This spring’s curious debate over the idea of building a single big progressive party highlighted the deep vein of loathing and fear that many in Michael Ignatieff’s Rosedale/Bay Street-centred blue Liberal faction hold for progressive policies and people. As they have made clear both publicly and privately in many venues, they feel closer to the Conservatives than to the New Democrats on many issues.

This being so, even after an election debacle on the scale suggested by these numbers, perhaps Mr. Harper could hope to work out another informal modus vivendi with the blue Liberals, whose party would be returning to the repair shop for another long visit. In which case, on these seat projections, Mr. Harper would govern with a de facto 212-seat majority, much as he is doing now.

Could Mr. Harper really count on this?

Mr. Ignatieff says he is open to building a progressive coalition government after the next election if the numbers justify it. He must say this to preserve his party’s currently faux-progressive positioning, designed to (faintly) appeal to New Democrats and Greens. But would those numbers justify such a government in his mind? Or does his conduct since January 2009 – in a fundamentally identical Parliament – tell us what he and his party wing would really do?

A pessimistic answer to this question would make a fall election more likely.

Several other factors might weigh in this mix. If the polls don’t change, there is the risk that Mr. Harper might lose Mr. Ignatieff – a Liberal Leader currently valued by all of his opponents. There is the risk of a double-dip recession, which Conservative fiscal policy would make worse. There is the risk of some scandal or fatal mistake. And as this summer’s “Censusgate” demonstrates, there is the raw fact that Mr. Harper and his strategists are ideologues who chafe at the restrictions of “Fabian libertarianism” and would like the freedom to pursue a less incremental revolution in this progressive country they despise so much (or at least the two-thirds of it that rejects their values and priorities).

Do the New Democrats want a fall election?

Yes, in that Jack Layton is Canada’s most popular and well-regarded opposition leader – a considerable asset, given that a five-point swing on the Harris numbers would make Mr. Layton’s party the main national alternative to the Conservatives. Perhaps such a swing is available in a campaign – it is less than the New Democrats achieved in recent campaigns compared to their 2000 results. Even at current levels of support, the New Democrats can look for further gains, notably at the expense of Conservatives in Western Canada.

No, in that the New Democrats saw what happened to Mr. Ignatieff last fall and wisely ducked. They likely need a bigger government mistake than is currently in the shop window to explicitly work to engineer a fall election.

Do the Liberals want a fall election?

Yes, in that a campaign might be Mr. Ignatieff’s best forum to get a second look from the people of Canada, and perhaps to change these profoundly discouraging circumstances from his perspective. His current summer tour is an attempt to practice for this. Liberal Party president Alf Apps is quite persuasive in his argument that Mr. Ignatieff’s numbers are now a potential advantage.

No, in that their experience last fall was that the people of Canada will punish them for election over-eagerness. They likely therefore must cede the initiative to the government.

Does the Bloc want a fall election?

Yes, to get it over with before the main event on their minds – the next Quebec provincial election, which might elect a new Parti Québécois government.

No, if they can be reasonably sure Mr. Harper will remain in office until that provincial election. An unpopular Conservative federal government could be a useful campaign tool for the PQ.

So what’s it going to be?

I say 60 per cent no election, 40 per cent yes, there will be one. Higher odds than most people seem to be giving it. As was the case in the summer of 2008, the next move (absent a game-changing mistake) is Mr. Harper’s.

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