Don't bet on election until the spring

Nobody among the conservatives or in the opposition wants one now

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fall session or fall election, that is the question.

I vote for a fall session, with the election coming next April after the government is defeated on the budget. By then, it will have been two and a half years since the 2008 election, about the same life span as the first Harper government.

Here's why.

First, Stephen Harper told John Baird, when he was sworn in as government House leader last month, that he did not want a fall election and that his job was to make this minority House work.

Second, Nigel Wright would not be taking a two-year leave as managing director of Onex Corp., and coming to Ottawa as Harper's new chief of staff, if he didn't expect at least six months in the job before an election. He's coming to run the Prime Minister's Office, not an election war room.

Third, Harper is about to set off on a fall listening tour, an exercise that is a straight steal from the playbook of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Flaherty's listening tours leading up to the 2009 and 2010 budgets were a big reason for their success.

He's the government's best communicator and most credible minister, which was why it was a very bad idea for the PMO to mess up his speech to the Canadian Club in Ottawa last week with a bunch of paranoid and partisan rhetoric about an opposition coalition that would cost the economy 400,000 jobs. The finance minister's words move markets, which is why they are so carefully chosen by the Department of Finance. But Flaherty's speech did serve one tactical purpose -it was a brush-back pitch for the opposition.

The handoff from Flaherty to Harper, which was the message of their joint photo-op in the PM's office on Monday, means the prime minister will be front and centre on the economy in the run up to the budget in late February or early March.

And while Harper will be doing a lot of listening, he'll also be doing a lot of speaking into the microphone. This is his opportunity to seize and frame an economic message. There's always a struggle for control of the agenda with the media, but that's the game. It's called message discipline and it is a remorseless business. But at the end of the day, if the government provides images and messages, the media have no choice but to report them.

And fourth, the Liberals have raised their game a bit with their leader's bus tour over the summer, but not as much as the Ottawa media would have you believe. The same pundits who were writing Michael Ignatieff off three months ago have suddenly discovered he can give a speech without notes or teleprompter.

That's just called learning his job, as well as rallying the Liberal base, which his tour definitely did. He has also learned, as Harper has, that if you're going to look ridiculous, you might as well have fun doing it. There's no doubt that Iggy had fun, and saw a lot of the country.

But Ignatieff still doesn't have a message, other than the Liberals having morphed from the party of the Big Red Machine to the Big Red Tent. The politics of inclusiveness is a very seductive theme. But we still don't have an idea of who Ignatieff is and where he wants to take the country.

Furthermore, while Ignatieff has improved his retail game, he has yet to improve in the House. He has shuffled his shadow cabinet, and changed the seating order, but the Liberals are still firing blanks in question period.

Finally, there are two other reasons why the Liberals won't force a fall election. They aren't ready for one, and they're still broke.

The Liberals can't go into the next election as they did the last one, with the leader making up policy and the platform on the fly. That's how they got the Green Shift, a tax grab in the name of the environment, a policy that couldn't be sold by a leader, Stephane Dion, who couldn't sell himself. The Grits need another six months to get their policy house in order, and they need a fundraising cycle to close the gap with the Conservatives, who consistently out-fundraise them by four times to one.

As for the NDP, they're in no hurry, either. Their poll numbers are a bit soft of late, reflecting hits they took for being on both sides of the gun-registry issue. And their leader, Jack Layton, is still recovering from cancer therapy. The last thing he needs now is five gruelling weeks on the road.

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