Harper should be careful what he wishes for

Recent polls indicate the Liberals could form the next minority government

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The Gazette, Monday, February 11, 2008

Stephen Harper appears to be stage-managing the defeat of his minority government in the House. In offering the opposition three different confidence issues in the next two months - Afghanistan, the budget and the crime bill - he's daring them to combine on at least one of them to bring down the government.

Of the three, only the budget - due in late February for a vote in early March - is an automatic question of confidence. But in tabling the resolution on extending the Afghanistan mission, government House leader Peter Van Loan declared, as expected, that it would also be a confidence issue. For good measure, the government is throwing in a vote on the crime bill as a confidence question, in the event it doesn't clear the Liberal-dominated Senate by the end of this month.

The last one, the crime bill, is pure mischief-making on Harper's part, taunting Stéphane Dion. As it happens, both the NDP and the Bloc Québécois are likely to support the government on this one, since neither party is a big fan of the Senate.

As for the Afghan motion, it might not be the trigger for an election in that the Liberals are divided on this issue and don't want to go to the country on it. They could end up forcing an election on the budget, instead.

That's because the Afghan motion, although introduced two weeks before the budget, is not likely to come to a vote until after the March break, while the budget vote will come at the beginning of next month. If the Liberals want to avoid an election on Afghanistan, and they do, they might have to force one on the budget instead.

This is the box Harper, a master of tactics, has put Dion in. It's a very tight squeeze for the Liberal leader. Dion could still abstain on the budget and allow a free vote among his MPs on Afghanistan - with enough Liberals supporting the motion to ensure its narrow passage, as was the case with the last such motion in 2006, which extended the mission to next year.

The government has bought into the Manley report, vowing to leave Kandahar next year if NATO doesn't step up with 1,000 more troops, but pledging to remain until the end of 2010 if the allies meet our request for burden-sharing in the South. Dion has been adamant on two points: no extension of Canada's "combat role" past next February, and the promise of a "three-line whip," forcing his members to vote with him against the motion. Well, then, welcome to the NHL, Stéphane. Keep your head up in the corners.

But Harper, for his part, should beware what he wishes for. April, with an election, could turn out to be the cruelest month.

Indeed, a new Nanos poll suggests there is not only every reason for Harper to reflect seriously on forcing his defeat in the House, but every good reason to avoid it.

Nik Nanos is the pollster who called every party's result in 2006 to within one-tenth of one percentage of the outcome, which set a new standard for accuracy in measuring public opinion.

From three days in the field last week, Nanos found the Liberals moving ahead of the Conservatives 33 to 31 per cent, and the NDP at 19 per cent nationally.

In Quebec, Nanos saw the Bloc at 37 per cent (up four points in two months), the Conservatives at 23 per cent (down six), and the Liberals at 22 per cent (down one). While regional breakouts leave room for twice the margin of error (six points as opposed to three), Nanos is basically in line with the previous week's authoritative CROP poll, which saw the Bloc at 36 per cent, the Conservatives at 27 per cent and the Liberals at 21 per cent in Quebec. The CROP numbers would give the Conservatives only the 11 Quebec seats they have now, the Nanos poll would give them even fewer.

The Conservatives are looking at even worse numbers in Ontario, where the Liberals lead 43 to 31 per cent, with the NDP at 19 per cent. For the Tories, this isn't even 2006 all over again, when their 35 per cent produced 40 Ontario seats; but more like 2004, when their 30 per cent resulted in only 24 seats, with the Tories virtually shut out in Toronto's suburban 905 belt.

Harper still has much stronger leadership numbers than Dion, but not the huge advantage he enjoyed a year ago. For example, on the key attribute of competence, Harper leads Dion 39-16; on trust 30-14, and on vision, 32-17.

Those are still 2-1 margins, but not enough for wise heads to overlook voting intention. On that, the Nanos poll is clear. There is no majority for anyone, and quite possibly a Liberal minority produced by Ontario.

Tactics and brinksmanship are all very well in the House. But if Harper means to go to the country, he needs much better numbers than this in his pocket.

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