Chances of a fall federal election are now 50-50

His failure to regain francophone support for the Liberals means the knives will be out for the novice leader

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The Gazette, Friday, September 21, 2007

You'd think given the results of Monday's by-elections, the odds on a fall election would have diminished and almost disappeared. After all, the Liberals got pummelled in all three by-elections and the Bloc Québécois took a serious hit in terms of the popular vote. The NDP made a spectacular breakthrough in Outremont, but remains a fringe party off the island of Montreal.

Only the Conservatives gained significant ground, winning a big majority of francophone votes in the two by-elections in Quebec profond, and emerging as the competitive federalist alternative to the Bloc. Those 50 Quebec ridings off the island hold the key to Conservative hopes for graduating to a majority in the next Parliament.

But the Conservatives are in no hurry for an election, and want to keep this House going, if possible, until new fixed elections kick in two years from now in October 2009.

Thus, a fall election should be a moot question, right off the table. The Oct. 16 Throne speech ought to be a done deal in terms of the Conservatives securing the support of at least one other party. After all, the Bloc is in decline and the Liberals are in disarray. Only the NDP, among the opposition parties, should be throwing its weight around in terms of a shopping list for the throne Speech.

But surprisingly, the odds in favour of an election have actually increased since Monday. Some senior Tory insiders now put the chances of the government surviving the confidence vote on the Throne Speech at no better than 50-50.

Go figure.

While Ottawa isn't in the grip of election fever, there is suddenly a sense of resignation in the air. If the government does fall, strange as it might seem, all sides will be okay with that.

The Bloc's body language on supporting the government is schizophrenic. First, Gilles Duceppe puts out conditions for supporting the Throne Speech, then his people let it be known they are tired of propping up the Tories because they find it increasingly difficult to justify to their own voters. And on Monday they lost Roberval-Lac-St.-Jean, a nationalist bastion, to the Conservatives by a 2-1 margin, and barely held off a late Conservative charge in Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, winning by less than five points in a riding they had won by 32 points in 2006.

Long story short: With its brand in slow but long-term decline, Duceppe might want to have an election sooner rather than later.

The NDP, feeling frisky, is certain to have a long list of outrageous conditions for supporting the Throne Speech, few of which the government will be able to meet. Although Jack Layton now holds a balance of power, he doesn't really want it. He has great difficulty justifying to his caucus, let alone explaining to his voters, why a party on the left should prop up a government on the right. And there is a certain implacable logic to this position. Even Stephen Harper understands and respects Layton's anomalous situation.

As for the Liberals, they are divided between those who now despair of their prospects in an election under Stéphane Dion, and those who think they might as well get it over with. In their thinking, the sooner an election is behind them, the sooner they can change leaders.

The latter faction includes the two leading leadership camps of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, as well as Liberals from the party's pragmatic centre who worry that Dion is taking them too far to the left. They are not wrong about that. Dion did it again on Wednesday, taking up the cause of Omar Khadr, who turned 21 in a Guantanamo prison cell that day. Dion said he had no choice but to defend him, since the Liberals are the party for the Charter of Rights. Great, Khadr as the poster boy of the charter. There's never a notwithstanding clause around when you need one.

In any event, the Liberals will vote against the Throne Speech as a matter of course (although some of them may arrange to miss the vote), and the NDP will vote against it as a question of principle.

That leaves the Bloc, and Duceppe, feeling conflicted. But Harper likes doing business with Duceppe - the prime minister regards him as a man of his word who always delivers. It's difficult to imagine that Harper and Duceppe couldn't do business on the two items the Bloc leader says he needs in the Throne Speech - ending our role in Kandahar on schedule in 2009 (though not necessarily leaving Afghanistan), and limiting the federal spending power (a traditional request by all Quebec parties).

Yet, if Duceppe wants to wave goodbye, we could be outta here in a confidence vote on Oct. 18, and headed to the polls in a five-week campaign ending with a vote on Nov. 26.

Stranger things have happened. And not all train wrecks can be prevented.

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