The Harper minority appears to have run its course

The PM is clearing the decks for a fall election campaign

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The Gazette, Monday, July 28, 2008

Minority governments aren't built to last, and the Harper government has already lasted longer than most. By the time Parliament resumes in late September, it will be the longest-serving single-term minority government since Confederation, surpassing the two Pearson governments that each lasted 30 months in the 1960s.

It's an interesting point of comparison. The two Pearson minorities - from April 1963 to November 1965, and from November 1965 to April 1968 - left an impressive legacy of achievement. From the Autopact to the adoption of the Canadian flag, from the Canada-Quebec pension plans to medicare, the Pearson administration is widely regarded as the most creative and productive since the Second World War.

It is generally forgotten that the Liberal government of the day was dogged by a series of minor scandals, and by a ferocious opposition that dominated question period from one session to the next. When the prime minister, Lester B. Pearson, finally called an election in the fall of 1965, the Liberals were thought likely to be returned with a long-sought majority. The voters, and John Diefenbaker, thought otherwise, and Pearson was returned with a second minority.

The historical parallels with the present government, and prime minister, are obvious. Stephen Harper has skillfully navigated through treacherous minority waters up to this point, and has accumulated a record of modest achievement. The Harper Conservatives, like the Pearson Liberals, are yearning for the comforts of a majority regime. But if an election were held anytime soon, they would have to settle for another minority. And Harper, like Pearson, would probably go down in history as a two-term minority prime minister, though not nearly as important a one. Pearson, alone among those who led only minority governments, stands in the first rank of prime ministers.

The Harper Conservatives, like the Pearson Liberals in 1965, are tired of a minority House, and itching to go to the polls. But by introducing a fixed election date of October 2009, Harper has denied himself a prime minister's greatest advantage of incumbency - the power of dissolving the House whenever he thinks it's a nice day for an election. He thought it was the right thing to do. Go figure. As a result, he must await his government's demise, or somehow engineer his defeat in the House.

Heaven knows he tried hard enough last winter, designating every vote as a matter of confidence or supply, on which the government would have fallen. But the Liberals kept threatening to defeat the government, only to disappear when the votes were counted. Eventually, they became quite embarrassed by their own craven behaviour.

Which might be one reason Harper might not have to wait much longer - the Liberals realize they can't hide behind the curtains forever. Parliament is not a game of hide-and-seek.

Most factions in the Liberal camp were actually prepared to go in June, when the Conservatives were reeling over the Julie Couillard affair, and with the economy teetering on the edge of a recession. It was Stéphane Dion, previously a hawk on defeating the government, who insisted on using the summer instead to roll out his green plan on climate change. It's a very high-risk strategy - instead of making it about Harper and his record, Dion has made it about himself and his carbon tax. The Liberal caucus remains doubtful, and shaky, but at this point they have no choice but to follow the leader.

This is a significant faction among Liberals - those who want an early election so they can get it over with. Then there are the rival leadership camps of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, who have their own reasons for wanting an election this year rather than next.

This would certainly suit Harper. The recent changes in the Prime Minister's Office suggest that he's moving away from a governance agenda toward a campaign footing. He's not looking for people to help him run the country any more, so much as for those who can help him get re-elected. The first PMO chief of staff, Ian Brodie, was a policy wonk. His successor, Guy Giorno, is a hard-nosed campaign operative from Queen's Park, and part of his mandate is to improve the Conservatives' prospects in the 905 suburban belt around Toronto. It's no coincidence the Conservatives announced $6 billion of infrastructure goodies for Ontario last week.

This is part of what a government, even a minority one, can uniquely do when the House is out. They can govern, they can make announcements. They can have fun, until the day the House returns, when life becomes miserable again.

Which is one more reason to think that this House, once it becomes the longest-running minority Parliament ever, will pretty much have run its course.

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