Smart money is against an early federal election

Outcome of Quebec's vote could change Harper's mind, but no party wants one now

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The Gazette, Friday, March 2, 2007

Election or no election? That has been the only question in Ottawa this week. It's still an odds-against proposition, if only because Stephen Harper doesn't want one. Which isn't to say the Conservatives aren't getting ready for one.

Let's start with Harper. He likes being prime minister. And the longer he is prime minister, the more he will be seen as prime minister.

While danger is ever present in a minority House, Harper has proved to be a quarterback who can read a blitz and call an audible as he moves the Conservative team down the field.

When Jack Layton asked for a special parliamentary committee to review the Clean Air bill, Harper immediately saw it as an opportunity to rescue his climate-change package from a bungled launch. In the appointment of John Baird as environment minister, Harper saw an opportunity to neutralize Stephane Dion's comparative green advantage, and within six weeks polls indicated all-party parity on the issue. Then Wajid Khan crossed from the Liberals to the Conservatives, giving Layton the mathematical balance of power. If Harper and Layton could agree on a climate-change bill and the budget, the survival of the House would be guaranteed until the fall, and probably to 2008.

When Gilles Duceppe tabled a motion to recognize Quebecers as a nation, in a bid to divide Liberals even further going into their leadership convention, Harper negotiated Liberal and NDP support to recognize Quebecers as nation "within a united Canada," getting the Liberals off the hook but leaving Duceppe no choice but to support it.

When Dion withdrew his party's support for renewing two sunset provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act, Harper saw an opportunity to portray the new Liberal leader as a flip-flopper, and to expose the bitter divisions and ethnic fault lines in the Liberal Party.

None of the opposition leaders is, or should be, in any hurry for an election. And neither should Harper, who despite a yawning advantage over the others on leadership attributes, keeps hitting a glass ceiling of 36 per cent in the polls, a good four points short of solid majority territory.

Dion is struggling to find his feet, and even to make himself understood in English in the House. Layton is trying to fend off the growth of Elizabeth May and the Green Party, who were at 12 per cent in a Strategic Council poll two weeks ago, just two points behind the NDP. Layton needs to marginalize her by producing results on climate change. And Duceppe is taking a big collateral hit from Andre Boisclair's weak leadership scores in the Quebec campaign.

Thus, it's in the interest of all parties, or at least one of them, to support the budget when the House resumes on March 19.

Start with Layton. If he wants to be relevant, he will have to show his hand quickly, in his first scrum after the tabling of the budget. He must either play his hand by supporting the budget, or fold by opposing it.

Then, Duceppe, whom Harper has essentially co-opted on three fronts: first, Quebec's $350-million share of the federal Eco Trust fund; second, Quebec's share of the funding to restore fiscal balance between Ottawa and the provinces; third, a significant announcement on higher education.

For any of those to flow to Quebec, the budget must be approved. And Duceppe has virtually no choice but to support it. He would never be able to explain to Quebecers he voted against more money than Quebec asked for to help achieve its Kyoto targets, much less how he voted against $1.5 billion of additional transfers to Quebec under equalization.

Finally, Dion, who still denies the existence of the fiscal imbalance, or at least dares the Conservatives to prove it. But in Quebec, the fiscal imbalance is like Kyoto - everyone accepts it even if no one understands it. Dion will face a huge revolt in his Quebec caucus if he doesn't support the budget. And with at least one of the other two parties likely to support it, he would be taking on water for nothing.

All the conditions for a successful budget are in now in place.

But there has been a late development that could still upset this calculation and tempt Harper to seek an early dissolution. And that would be Mario Dumont finishing second, or even a strong third, in the Quebec election.

A realignment election in Quebec could offer similar prospects for Quebec's 75 seats in the federal House. That might prove to be more than Harper could resist.

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