Lumps of coal and pieces of cake all around

The Christmas stockings of federal leaders will be full

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The Gazette, Monday, December 24, 2007

Opening his Christmas stocking in Calgary tomorrow morning, Stephen Harper might find both of a piece of pound cake and a lump of coal. One tastes sweet, and the other leaves a trail of smoke.

For the sweet part - and my mother's pound cake, with thick vanilla icing, was very sweet - Harper can count his blessings for completing another calendar year in office. His minority Conservative government has never been seriously threatened in the House. He is fortunate in that his principal opponent, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, is a weak leader representing a strong political brand. Dion is least popular where it helps Harper most - in Dion's own province of Quebec, which holds the keys to the possibility of a Conservative majority in the next election.

And yet, there's the smoke, creating coughing fits and confusion for the Conservatives. Harper's legislative agenda, so carefully laid out in the Throne Speech in October, fell completely off the table because of the Mulroney-Schreiber affair in November and December.

Dion's leadership woes were a major story line at Thanksgiving. At Christmas, he's off life support, and breathing on his own again in the sense that no one's talking about the leadership and financial crisis in the Liberal Party.

These are mixed blessings, with equally mixed portents for 2008. Harper is a masterful tactician, as he has demonstrated time and again in playing the contending opposition forces off against one another in a minority Parliament. For such an inherently weak government, it has proven surprisingly stable and predictable, thanks largely to Harper's ability to play both the short and long game - fending off the blitz while working his way down the field.

In that sense, the voters needn't compare Harper to perfection, so much as to what's actually on offer. Harper is a control freak, though as between being in control of the government and having it out of control, any prime minister would vote for the former. Harper projects the image of a competent and decisive leader. Most Canadians, whatever they think of him, agree on that. But there's also a sense that he's cold and calculating, with a bit of a mean streak.

But his opponents have liabilities of their own. Dion turns out to be the accidental leader of the Liberals, a party with brand equity that is a wonder of the Western world. Dion would actually have finished fourth on the first ballot at the Liberal leadership a year ago, had not a handful of Gerard Kennedy's delegates voted for Martha Hall Findlay to reward her for an excellent speech.

But for that, Dion would have been off the ballot, and either Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae, or even Kennedy in a remote scenario, would have won. This means that three guys who know they should have beaten Dion at leadership didn't, and they haven't seen anything since to change their conviction that the wrong guy won. Neither has anybody else.

Dion is, to put it charitably, hopelessly outclassed in the House by the leaders of all three other parties, and by the deputy leader of his own - Ignatieff. There is no reason to think he could win an election except by accident, and yet he has already won a convention that way. You never know.

Has he improved in any sense, other than his English, this year? Nope. He just got lucky with the Mulroney-Schreiber affair at the end of it. But Brian Mulroney's not on the ballot.

Gilles Duceppe has clearly tired of Ottawa, and wants to get on with the rest of his life. Hence, his decision to defeat the government, notwithstanding the declining fortunes of his party in the polls, which essentially find the Bloc Québécois tied with the Conservatives, both now looking at about 30 seats in Quebec in the next election.

Duceppe's future in federal politics has been behind him since the May weekend he announced his intention to seek the Parti Québécois leadership on Friday and endorsed Pauline Marois on Saturday. The first time he ever had to take a punch, he went down for the count.

Why should Quebecers send someone to Ottawa who doesn't even want to be there? Which is the Conservatives' most devastating taunt to the Bloc in the House: Why are you still here?

As for Jack Layton, he remains a bit of a mystery. With the breakthrough by-election victory of Tom Mulcair in Outremont, the NDP is growing in both its media presence and its support in the Montreal region. Layton is also acutely aware of the threat from Elizabeth May and the Greens on the left, even as he sees the Liberals as his main competitor for votes on the centre left.

Yet the NDP's problem has always been how to be taken seriously, not just as a chorus of true believers, but as voices of reason. There's a difference between being high minded and being holier-than-thou, and NDP frontbenchers such as Mulcair and Pat Martin are among the most sanctimonious MPs in the entire House. Layton needs to get these guys under control.

In that sense, all the leaders in this House have both cake and coal in their stockings.

Merry Christmas. God bless them, every one.

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