Harper has good reasons not to want an election this fall

The improving economy, G8 summit and Vancouver Games are good omens

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When he met his caucus last July at LÚvis, Stephen Harper was looking for a pretext to call a fall election. Today, as he meets them at Meech Lake, he should be looking for a pretext to avoid one.

That was then, this is now.

A year ago, Harper had poll numbers in his pocket that told him a Conservative majority was not only achievable, but quite likely, with the road to that majority leading through Quebec. Today, a Conservative majority is out of reach, largely because Quebec has become a roadblock. What's more, the timing of a fall election is otherwise inconvenient and inauspicious for the prime minister.

There are three reasons why Harper should do everything in his power to remain in office until the fall of 2010, which might be the very reasons for the Liberals to hasten the downfall of this minority House.

The first is the economy. The second is the Vancouver Winter Games. And the third is next year's G8 summit, to be hosted by Canada at Muskoka.

First, on the economy, a recovery has begun and growth is resuming after only three quarters of recession. While the downturn has been scary for its steepness - 370,000 lost jobs - Canada's economy is now expected to grow at a normal three-per-cent rate next year. Job creation usually lags growth, reflecting both productivity improvements during a downturn and caution about putting out a "Help Wanted" sign. While the second half of 2009 will be better than the first half, 2010 will be that much better.

Moreover, the Conservatives can claim that they got things just about right in the January budget, with $40 billion of stimulus over two years, and a deficit that exceeds an initial two-year forecast of $85 billion, but is still only two per cent of GDP.

The debate on the need for additional stimulus ends with the Bank of Canada's projection last week that the economy is growing again. And while the deficit will wipe out the debt reduction of $106 billion since the budget was balanced in 1997, Canada is still in the most enviable fiscal posture of any G8 country. When you consider that that the U.S. deficit is $1.75 trillion this year, nearly 13 per cent of output, it's no wonder currency traders are dumping the greenback and buying the loonie.

Moreover, there are management issues, such as the GM bailout, where the government looks as if it knows what it's doing. In terms of process, this involved Ontario as well as several central agencies of the federal government, not to mention the White House, with talks involving both the PM and President Barack Obama. Nationalizing the auto industry might be a bad outcome, preferable only to the alternative of it leaving Canada, but it was a well-run file, and competence is a core essential of government.

The Vancouver Games loom as a feel-good moment for the country, with an impressive harvest of medals in the offing. Harper and his ministers should spend a good part of those 17 days in Vancouver and Whistler, basking in the reflected glow of that good feeling. Harper could even do some on-site research for his forthcoming book on hockey, a work in progress that has been delayed by his current job.

As for the G8, there's much more to it than simply hosting it, though that's a huge job of logistics and security. If you thought there were traffic jams from Toronto to Muskoka this summer, wait until next summer. But the chairperson of the G8 spends months before the meeting visiting the other heads of government to establish the agenda. And it involves more than the old G8, but the newer members of the expanding club, including China and India. This is a huge opportunity for Harper - the world as his stage..

So quite apart from the public's conspicuous lack of appetite for a fall election, it is in Harper's interest to avoid one.

This means the Conservatives must find a way to survive opposition days in the fall, and persuade one of the opposition parties to buy into the budget, probably following the Vancouver Games in February.

That's a tall order. For example, the Liberals have an opposition day scheduled for the end of September, and many of their MPs are bullish about their prospects in an early writ.

They shouldn't be in such a hurry. Their poll numbers are up in Quebec, mostly because Harper's are down here. But in the rest of the country, Michael Ignatieff took a significant hit from his weak performance as Hamlet at the end of the spring session.

In any event, Harper enjoys a significant advantage - being prime minister. He should play it for all it's worth.

 
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