There's no majority for Harper in latest poll numbers

Kyoto and Middle East have killed any possibility of a fall election

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The Gazette, Monday, July 31, 2006

That screeching sound you may have heard over the weekend might have been Stephen Harper slamming on the brakes at any thought of a fall election.

An election today would produce another minority Conservative government, according to a new Decima poll that finds public opinion very much aligned as it was in January. In fact, the Decima numbers mirror the election results, with the Conservatives at 36 per cent, the Liberals at 30 per cent, and the NDP at 17 per cent.

In Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois rebounded to 43 per cent, up five points from a May poll, the Conservatives slipped six points to 23 per cent, with the Liberals at 18 per cent, and completely out of the game in the regions, the key Bloc-Bleu battleground of 50 seats.

And in Ontario, the leaderless Liberals have moved out to a 10 point, 43-33 lead over the Tories, with the NDP stuck at 17 per cent.

These numbers, within a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, would produce almost the same results in Quebec as on Jan. 23, when the Bloc won 51 seats with 42 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives won 10 seats with 25 per cent (eight of them clustered in the vote-efficient 418 area code region) and the Liberals won 13 seats with 20 per cent (all in Montreal and the bedroom community of Laval).

There is no road to a majority through Quebec for Harper with numbers like these.

In Ontario, again within the margin of error, the Conservatives wouldn't do as well as in January, when they won 40 seats with 35 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals won 54 seats with 39 per cent of the vote, and the NDP 12 seats with 17 per cent.

It is a rule of thumb of Ontario politics that every percentage point above 30 per cent is worth five seats, and these numbers would return about 65 Liberals and only 30 Conservatives, pushing the Tories back to their heartland in eastern and southern Ontario, and shutting them out again in the Toronto suburbs of area 905, where they made a modest breakthrough of seven seats in January.

So, what's going on, in the middle of summer, for the Tories to be retreating from majority territory of 40 per cent, where they were sitting comfortably through the spring?

Well, a war in the Middle East, during the period Decima was in the field from July 20 to 23. That would account for some of the Conservative slippage in Quebec, given the importance of the Lebanese community here and the opposition in Quebec to Harper's strong support of Israel.

"The dominant story and the position Canada has taken on it is also seen as being aligned with George W. Bush, especially in Quebec," says Decima president Bruce Anderson.

And then there's Kyoto, or not. While Kyoto is only a process of unachievable targets, it has huge brand equity in Quebec. Until the Conservatives come forward with their plan on climate change in the fall, there is a significant environmental vacuum.

"The environment could be the next important political issue, it could be very important at the next election," Anderson says.

Any time the economy is strong as it is now, and jobs are not an issue, the environment always moves to the top tier of voter concerns. This was the case in 1988, when Brian Mulroney won the middle-class vote in the pre-writ period by seizing ownership of the environment on everything from acid rain to beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River.

Anderson sees some similarities with 1988 but also some differences, in that the baby boomers who were yuppies then are now approaching retirement and "are starting to think about leaving a legacy on the environment, and certainly climate change is a big part of that, especially since the hurricane disasters of last summer."

Anderson's numbers in Quebec clearly reflect the short-term impact of the war in the Middle East, and Harper's unequivocal support of the Israelis. But approve of it or not, Harper has also taken a strong leadership position, and the next election is going to be largely about leadership and the competence of his young government. In the end, the Middle East is not likely to be on the ballot.

Yet these numbers also offer a cautionary warning to Harper, not to arrange for the defeat of the government over the softwood lumber agreement with the United States.

Minority parliaments are no place to play chicken. Just ask Joe Clark.

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