A federal election this year? Don't bet on it

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The Gazette, Monday, January 10, 2011

Election or no election in 2011? That is the question in Ottawa.

The town should take Stephen Harper at his word that he doesn't want an election this year, but given the mood swings of a minority House, he will be ready for one.

That being said, there won't be an election this year unless there's an unexpected train wreck over the budget, now expected in early March.

For one thing, the government will not precipitate its own defeat -there will be no poison pill in the budget. For another, there will probably be incentives for both the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois to support the budget.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty needs only one of the opposition leaders, Jack Layton or Gilles Duceppe, as a dance partner, and he might even have a spring fling with both.

The NDP simply cannot go into an election until the party's high command finds out what happened to its vote in the November by-elections. In Winnipeg, the NDP lost a riding it had won by 40 points in a general election -and lost it to the Liberals, who finished in third place in 2008, 52 points back. In Vaughan in suburban Toronto, where the NDP won more than 5,000 votes in 2008, it won just over 600 votes in the by-election. Layton should not be going anywhere near an election until he has some answers.

Already, NDP finance critic Tom Mulcair has sent a friendly message to Flaherty via the Globe and Mail, in a year-end piece by Bill Curry: "Mulcair said he agrees with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's recent assessment that the two of them found some common ground during a private meeting on the budget. He said those areas include a need to help low-income seniors -perhaps by enhancing the Guaranteed Income Supplement -and possibly renewing incentives for energy-friendly home renovations. Mulcair said polling shows no party stands to gain now from an election."

This is a first -negotiating the terms of a budget deal in a newspaper. If that's all it takes to get the NDP's support -topping up the GIS and some home-reno money -they can consider it a done deal. But the NDP will also have to live with the scheduled reduction of corporate taxes to 15 per cent by next year. Of course, that was announced in the 2007 budget, with gradual reductions going forward to 2012, giving Canada the most competitive corporate taxes in the G7, and a huge incentive for job-creating investments. It's Michael Ignatieff who has rather foolishly made this his election hobby horse, and Layton should be content to let him ride it alone.

Then there's the Bloc, whose support for the budget can be secured by a single line item, but a big one: Ottawa's agreeing to Quebec's request for $2.2 billion for harmonizing the QST with the GST into a single sales tax.

It's not only Jean Charest who has been asking for this, as Quebec's equivalent share of what Ontario received for a harmonized sales tax. The Bloc has been demanding it throughout the last year at every opportunity in question period.

If Harper were to accede to Charest's request, there's no way the Bloc could vote against the budget.

And the beauty of it is, no one could accuse Harper of buying off the separatists, only of doing for the federalist government of Quebec what he has already done for Ontario and British Columbia.

It would be immensely helpful to Quebec's case if Charest would stop taking shots at Harper on climate change, but Flaherty has forged an alliance with Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand over pension reform, and the two ministers both understand that HST money is part of the play.

So no election over the budget, thus no spring election. And in the fall, six provinces, including Ontario, have elections, several of them at fixed dates. You can't have federal and provincial campaigns at the same time in Ontario, as the same people are involved.

So here's the deal: prorogation at the end of September and a throne speech after Thanksgiving that will serve as the outline of the Conservative platform for an election in the spring of 2012.

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