Don't expect an election

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"The tumult and the shouting dies; the captains and the kings depart." - Rudyard Kipling

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The tumult and shouting are at full cry, while the captains and the kings aren't going anywhere. Not this week anyway.

This minority House will be in session for a while yet, probably until the budget in March, following the Olympic Games in Vancouver.

The Liberals, whose public posture is that the Conservative government should be defeated, are actually hoping that Jack Layton will prop it up for a while.

And the Conservatives, whose party line is to keep governing into an economic recovery, are privately quite sanguine about the prospect of a defeat in the House. Stephen Harper doesn't want to pull the trigger on an election, as he did a year ago, but he wouldn't mind if Layton did.

This is because Harper has poll numbers in his pocket that tell him he's on the doorstep of a majority. The latest Ispos poll for Canwest News Service gives him in a 39-30 lead nationally over the Liberals, and a 10-point lead in Ontario.

Which is why Harper doesn't really have the welcome mat out for Layton, who holds the balance of power that Michael Ignatieff relinquished in his "Mr. Harper, your time is up" speech two weeks ago, putting the country on a standing election watch, to the considerable annoyance of voters everywhere.

No backroom deals with the socialists, Harper says in one breath.

But then in the next breath, Harper offers a reform to Employment Insurance that Layton calls "a step in the right direction." (And in a highly disciplined moment, Layton walked away from a scrum without taking questions, forcing the media to cover his message.)

Layton is unlikely to turn up his nose at 20 weeks extended EI coverage for workers who have been long-term contributors to the plan. There are 200,000 families who will receive additional coverage. And many of them are autoworkers, who find themselves out of a job for the first time, having paid into EI their entire working lives. It's a big number, $1 billion.

For that matter, the Bloc is equally likely to support the changes to EI, leaving the Liberals to do what? Michael Ignatieff, having demanded changes such as a national standard and a lower hours-worked threshold for qualifying, has now put himself in the position of opposing the government for the sake of opposing it. How are the Liberals going to explain this? Oops!

The Liberals' first opportunity to oppose the government will come Friday afternoon, when the Conservatives will present a way and means motion to implement the budget bill that the Liberals, uh, supported.

No worries, the Bloc has already indicated it will probably support the Conservatives on this one, since there is stuff in there that Gilles Duceppe likes.

The government scheduled the vote on a Friday afternoon, a rare occurrence in a House that normally rises for the weekend at noon, largely so that Conservative MPs could be in Montreal to attend tomorrow night's 25th anniversary celebration of Brian Mulroney's election. Harper won't be there, he'll be in New York making a speech, but Laureen Harper will be there, and so will many members of his cabinet.

The question arises as to why the Conservatives are moving out to a significant lead over the Liberals, in an election the Liberals have vowed to force, but are increasingly nervous about.

It's no mystery. The voters don't want an election, and this time they really mean it. It has something to do with the economic moment we're in, and their view that politicians have a duty to stay in Ottawa and make Parliament work.

Canadians have become used to minority government, they seem to regard it as the new normal, but they don't want another one in their future anytime soon.

In the two weeks since he declared the Liberals would no longer prop up the government, Ignatieff has utterly failed to tell the country why we need an election now, and what he would do as prime minister.

The Liberals scheduled a speech to the Canadian Club in Ottawa on Monday, where instead of making the case for an election, Ignatieff made an address on foreign policy. There were some worthy ideas in it, but it's hard to see the proposed creation of a G20 secretariat in Canada as a major mover of votes. And in the first two sessions of question period, the Liberals have lit nothing but wet firecrackers.

So for the moment, we are still in the House, and not headed for the hustings.

The captains and the kings are still in town.

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