The election no one wants

Neither the Liberals nor the Tories want to go to polls, but we might anyway

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The Gazette, Monday, February 18, 2008

Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals are really anxious for an election, yet neither party can afford to miss the train as it leaves the station.

Thus, even as they hope to avoid an election, both major parties are urgently preparing for one.

Stephen Harper has publicly stated, on many occasions, his preference to govern until the fall of 2009, when a new fixed election calendar would automatically kick in to dissolve this minority House. The longer he serves as prime minister, the more he is seen as prime minister. And as he recently said: "I've got the best job in the best country in the world. It's not going to get much better than this."

His softening poll numbers are another reason to avoid an election. He does not now have the winning numbers for a majority in his pocket. Given recent Conservative weakness in the polls in Ontario and Quebec, even another minority is no sure thing. And if Harper were to lose an election, especially to Stéphane Dion, the defeat would be entirely on his head. He would be history as Conservative leader.

The Liberals aren't ready for an election and, with the important exception of their leader, they don't seem to want one. Even though the possibility of a Liberal minority beckons in the polls, the Liberals have every reason to avoid an election.

For one thing, they are desperately short of money. In 2007, the Conservatives raised four times as much money - $12 million to $3 million. The Liberals would essentially have to fall back on their allocation of $1.75 per vote per year from the 2006 election from Elections Canada. They can certainly borrow against that at the bank, and would have enough to run a campaign. But they would be facing a major disadvantage in terms of their media buy, where they need to be competitive with the Conservatives.

In essence, the Liberals would be running on fumes. At this point, they don't even have a plane reserved, and if there's an election call in early March, aircraft could be in short supply because of demand driven by the March school break. This is not an insignificant detail, unless the Liberals are planning a whistle stop campaign. Apart from a cash shortage and an incomplete tour plan, the Liberals are still working on their policy platform. And their leader remains a work in progress. Is he ready for a two-hour debate in English? You can go only go so far as the beneficiary of low expectations.

And with the expected softening of the economy to reflect the downturn in the United States, why would the Liberals do it now, when they can wait until spring to defeat the government at a time of their own choosing. The Liberals should also win at least three out of four by-elections scheduled for March 17, which would put some wind in their sails.

At their caucus last week, one Liberal MP after another, including 11 Ontario MPs in a row, spoke up against an election. Dion himself remains the only important election hawk in the Liberal high command. But he's the leader, and if he tells his caucus they must defeat the government on the budget, then defeat it they will, unless there is a massive flu outbreak in Liberal ranks when the first budget vote occurs on March 4.

As for Harper, in spite of his election brinksmanship on Afghanistan and the crime bill, discretion remains the better part of valour. A compromise with the Liberals on the Afghan mission is clearly in the interest of both parties: Harper needs the high road of a Canadian compromise, and Dion needs to avoid a divided Liberal party, as well as the perception that they are not supporting the troops they put into Kandahar in the first place. The Liberals walked out on a vote urging the Senate to pass the crime bill last week, meaning they refused to play the game. Which leaves the budget as an automatic election trigger if the government can't get it passed.

With the Bloc Québécois and NDP both itching for an election, it's all on Dion's shoulders. As he has on Afghanistan, he's going to come under severe pressure from Liberal ranks, and sharp scrutiny from without.

As for the election train leaving the station in haste, that only increases the odds of a train wreck for either Harper or Dion.

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