Poll has Tories stalled in popularity when they should be doing better

Dion is no Barack Obama, but Harper still can't make headway

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The Gazette, Monday, January 14, 2008

A Harris-Decima online poll on Thursday showed a seven-point bounce for the Conservatives over the holidays, with the Tories moving out to a 37-30 lead over the Liberals, whose support was unchanged.

There's no mystery about this. The House wasn't sitting, and when the House is out, the government of the day always gets a bump, simply because it isn't getting pounded in question period every day. There are no negatives in the news cycle. The government sets and controls the communications agenda. And during the holidays, the voters are generally in a good mood, while the prime minister dominates the agenda with his annual round of year-end interviews.

Seven points? Nothing to it. But the Conservatives are still three points short of clear majority territory, with both leading parties right where they were on election day in January 2006 (Cons 36, Libs 30). Another poll on Saturday actually put the Liberals in the lead - 35 to 33 per cent - due mainly to the collapse of the Tory vote in Alberta.

And this, in spite of a strong economy and strong approval numbers for the Harper government in a year-end Nanos poll for Policy Options magazine. That the positive mood of the country, and generally high marks for the government, doesn't translate into majority support for the Tories is, or ought to be, pause for concern for the Harper brain trust. Moreover, against the weakest Liberal leader in memory, one who had just a terrible first year in the job, Harper has been unable to move voting intention from the election day two years ago. And Harper isn't exactly running against Barack Obama. It's only Stéphane Dion.

And when the House comes back in two weeks, all the negatives will kick in again. The Liberals will continue to press the Mulroney-Schreiber affair in question period, feeling their oats because of Saturday's poll. The opposition parties will stir it anew in the House ethics committee, where all kinds of grandstanding goes on under parliamentary immunity.

And the Conservative numbers will tank again. Take it to the bank. The Harperites were in denial about this before the holidays, insisting they continued to move their agenda forward in the fall, the most toxic sitting of the House in decades. They are living on another planet. They were well in control when the new session began in mid-October, dominating the agenda with the Throne Speech and rubbing salt in Liberal leadership wounds. But when the Mulroney-Schreiber story broke at the beginning of November, the government agenda fell off the table, the Liberal leadership crisis fell off the radar, and Conservative voting intention fell out of majority territory.

So when the House comes back, both the Conservatives and the opposition parties will have a decision to make - whether to keep it going or administer assisted suicide and send the country into an April election.

The trigger won't be any motions on opposition days. The government controls the allocation of opposition days, and can back-end load them to after the budget.

But if the government wants an election, it could submit the recommendations of John Manley's task force on the future of the Afghan mission, due by month's end, to a binding resolution of the House any time after that. The opposition parties are pretty much of one voice on ending the mission as scheduled next year. If Manley recommends an extension, or redeployment within the country, that would be incentive enough for all opposition parties to vote against it. After all, Dion has said time and again that Canada's "combat mission" in Afghanistan should end in February 2009. The Bloc Québécois doesn't want an extension, and the NDP want out, period.

And then there's the budget, due the last week of February. The Liberals, as the official opposition, can hardly support a budget, especially after sitting out the vote on the Throne Speech. Dion's contortions over that had the political class doubled over in laughter, and core Liberal constituencies like the Toronto Star, the party's Pravda, fuming with contempt for the leader.

The NDP won't support any Conservative budget, even one that promises to subsidize college students, build shelters for the homeless, save union jobs in the auto industry, protect the environment and eliminate poverty. It's not Jack Layton, it's the party.

Which leaves the Bloc. Gilles Duceppe wanted an election in the fall, and probably still wants one in the spring. He wants outta there, not because the Bloc is resurgent, but because it isn't.

And then there's the public inquiry on the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, to say nothing of the sideswipe effect of the U.S. economy close to tipping into recession.

Harper should want to be outta there, too.

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