Triggering an election will be harder than winning it

NDP and the Bloc have no interest in bringing down the Conservatives

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The Gazette, Sunday, May 3, 2009

As the Liberals board flights home from the coronation of Michael Ignatieff in Vancouver, visions of an imminent restoration to power will be dancing in their heads.

And why not? The party is united behind the new leader; its financial health is gradually being restored; and it is resurgent in the polls, nowhere more so than Quebec. The authoritative CROP poll the other day put the Liberals in first place for the first time in five years, at 37 per cent, with the Bloc Québécois at 31 per cent, the Conservatives a distant third at 15, with the New Democrats at 12 per cent.

Best prime minister? Iggy, at 45 per cent. Jack Layton at 20 per cent. And Stephen Harper, who is prime minister, at 17 per cent. The government's satisfaction rate in Quebec? Thirty six per cent. The dissatisfaction rate is 61 per cent. And 60 per cent is considered a tipping point.

CROP's voting-intention numbers, if an election were held today, would produce about 40 Liberal MPs, 30 Blocs and as few as five Conservatives, all in the 418 region around Quebec City.

There would also be an echo effect in Ontario, where the Liberals are already poised to win 75 seats, which could take them higher still, perhaps even across the threshold of a majority.

While the math of a majority is daunting, especially in a four-party House, it comes into view for either major national party when it starts putting up numbers in Quebec and Ontario, which together provide 181 members in the 308-seat House of Commons.

But Iggy's problem might be arranging for the demise of the Conservatives anytime soon. The Liberals would clearly like to pull the trigger on an election this fall, while Harper is still wearing the recession, but both the Bloc and the NDP are notably less enthusiastic about bringing down the government on a confidence question.

Together, the Bloc and the NDP have the balance of power, and both can use it to achieve some of their policy objectives, as well as avoiding an early election. They can read the polls, too, and they both see their numbers tanking. Both are in the process of pivoting, and sending their shopping lists over to the government.

The Bloc, for example, introduced a motion in the House last Wednesday calling on the government to negotiate in good faith with Quebec on the harmonization of the GST with Quebec's sales tax. It's the Bloc's big file, in terms of defending Quebec's interests, after Ontario got more than $4 billion for harmonization. The Bloc and Quebec are demanding $2.6 billion as their price for harmonization, though they still want Quebec to administer it.

To general surprise, the Conservatives supported the non-binding motion, and it passed easily. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, in talks with Quebec's Raymond Bachand, said he said the government supported the "spirit" of the motion.

Then the Bloc put out another shopping list on Thursday, calling on the government to launch a second stimulus package of $32 billion, on top of the $40 billion already out there, in the fall economic update.

In other words, they can talk about the price, but the Bloc's support is there to be bought, to keep the government in place past the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, when the country is expected to be on a high from playing host to the world and winning its share of medals (we have never won gold in either of the two Games we have hosted, in Montreal in the summer of 1976 and Calgary in the winter of 1988).

The Conservatives hope the economy will have turned up by next spring, and that Iggy's honeymoon with the voters, especially in Quebec, will be on the wane.

The NDP can also exercise a balance of power, but first Jack Layton has to turn the page from the opposition coalition of last December, get over the fact that it flopped, and move on. The famous photo op of the Three Stooges' signing ceremony was a very bad thing for Layton, because the voters figured out from that moment the game that was afoot. And in English-speaking Canada, they didn't like it one bit.

The NDP has also taken a big hit in the polls because of the economy. A lot of their constituents, such as auto and forestry workers, are among the ones most affected by the recession. But they are not turning to the NDP, but rather to the Liberals, because of that party's abiding brand equity as the party of economic managers.

There's nothing Layton can do about that, except wait it out, until things get better.

We could be here for a while yet. Iggy and the Libs might have to get used to it.

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