Liberals' election strategy comes down to 'Let's get it over with'

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The question arises to why the Liberals, down anywhere from seven to 16 points in the polls, would plunge the country into an election that they seem almost certain to lose.

And the answer that comes back from Liberals is: Let's get it over with.

This is not a good rationale for an election. But then Ottawa, seized with its own kind of March Madness, is not a very rational place right now.

There are even some Liberals who have privately expressed the hope that Stephen Harper will be returned with a majority so they can get on with properly rebuilding the party, in terms of both ideas and leadership, over the next four or five years.

So intent are the Liberals on forcing an election that they even seem indifferent to the likelihood they will be blamed as the cause of one.

And when you walk them through the poll numbers, they just shrug. Let's get it over with.

This week's Léger poll for The Gazette is representative of recent public-opinion research. It puts the Conservatives at 36 per cent, the Liberals at 23 per cent, the NDP at 18 per cent, and the Bloc at 10 per cent nationally and 40 per cent in Quebec. Another poll, by Angus Reid, has a huge 16 point spread, 39-23 Conservatives over the Liberals.

Both pollsters were in the field last week, when the Liberals were in full mudslinging mode in the House of Commons, trying to frame a ballot question on trust and transparency - namely the lack of both in Harper. Sooner or later, if you throw enough mud, some of it sticks in a cumulative effect.

That's the point of the committee hearings starting Wednesday, due to report to the House next week on whether the Conservatives are in contempt of Parliament in withholding budget documents from the finance committee, and whether International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda misled the House in changing her story about a document cancelling aid funding for a church group.

The House Affairs committee is to report back on both matters to the Commons next Monday, the day before the budget. The Liberals are threatening a non-confidence motion, but they have to get the floor first. They have one opposition day left, but it's the government that allocates opposition days, and there's no way the Conservatives will schedule one before the budget.

So here's what's going to happen next week. There will be no opportunity for a Liberal non-confidence motion on Monday. On Tuesday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will deliver the budget at 4 p.m., and move that it be adopted.

On Wednesday, the Liberals will move their amendment to the budget, probably on rescinding corporate tax cuts. The Bloc might offer a sub-amendment if it chooses. There being only one amendment and one sub-amendment on the main motion, the NDP doesn't get one. In offering their amendment on corporate taxes, the Liberals will try to shame the NDP into voting against the budget. Tax cuts for the rich aren't part of the NDP program. But the party did vote against reducing corporate taxes from 21 to 16 per cent over five years back in 2007. Jack Layton's choice will be determined not by Liberal wedge tactics, but whether there's enough in the budget, starting with a top-up of the Guaranteed Income Supplement, for him to support it.

As for the Liberal opposition day on trust and transparency, it will come later in the week, probably Thursday. It remains to be seen whether they can get a vote before the budget vote, which comes the following week, probably March 29.

It's obvious the Liberals would prefer a campaign frame of trust over the economy, which Harper and Flaherty own. Canada has come through the recession in better shape than any G7 country, on every metric from fiscal frameworks to job creation.

In addition to courting Layton and the NDP, Flaherty will put a couple of things in the budget that the Conservatives can run on in the event they are defeated on it.

There's still time for grownups to prevail, but the toxic mood of the House has made an election more likely. And when two senior cabinet ministers announce they're not running again, as Stockwell Day and Chuck Strahl did last Saturday, that's a clearing of the decks for an election. In this regard, Harper is sitting pretty - he might not want an election, but he stands to gain the most from one.

Campaigns do matter. And Iggy can certainly exceed expectations, which could hardly be lower. Leaders can go in behind and win a campaign. Brian Mulroney went in 10 points down in 1984, and won the biggest majority in history. Harper went in 10 points behind in 2006, and won on a narrative of change and consumer promises - $100 a month daycare allowance and cutting the GST.

You never know. So, say the Liberals, let's get it over with.

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