What Harper’s thinking - Macleans.ca

What Harper’s thinking

WELLS: Some insiders are talking majority. So why is the Prime Minister in no rush to call an election?

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Chris Wattie / Reuters

For two guys who never got along, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper seem to be learning to enjoy each other’s company. They posed for photos at Whistler during the Olympics, dressed for warmth and grinning from ear to ear. They were back together this week when Prime Minister Harper spoke at the unveiling of Chrétien’s official portrait in Parliament’s Centre Block.

At such moments the impression they give is not one of opposites attracting. Harper may be working hard to undo as much of Chrétien’s legacy as he can, but it is obvious that each man recognizes elements of himself when he looks at the other. At the unveiling of Chrétien’s portrait, Harper joked that “the hanging of Jean Chrétien is long overdue,” but he also called Chrétien “a great parliamentarian” who “knew instinctively what it took to win.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the two men are discovering more in common as the length of Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister grows. Chrétien, too, has always liked a winner. Applying that very yardstick, Chrétien would be the first to note that Harper has not yet been Prime Minister for even half as long as Chrétien was, and that a parliamentary majority still eludes the Conservatives. But Harper is becoming a durable Prime Minister, perhaps even a consequential one. Both men have been lucky in the opponents they faced. Both have been ruthless in pressing advantage. Both manage to endure.

Within weeks the House of Commons will rise again for the summer and another window for a possible election will close definitively. Harper will relax a little—no minority prime minister can ever relax entirely while sitting in a House of Commons where his opponents outnumber his own caucus—and settle in for a summer of international summits and Calgary Stampede breakfasts. This week, as they pondered the truly bizarre school year now ending, Harper’s close advisers were feeling optimistic about the boss’s chances of keeping his job for a long time yet.

Some even dare speculate about the prize that has eluded Harper until now: a parliamentary majority. No prime minister has ever won one after falling short twice before. Harper has proven perfectly capable of sabotaging his own lucky streaks. But Conservatives argue that long-term trends favour their chances much more than the Liberals’. Which is why, even as Harper once again opens up a comfortable polling advantage over Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals, he is content to avoid an election for as long as possible. Time is on the Conservative leader’s side.

“Every day that Stephen Harper is Prime Minister, Stephen Harper is Prime Minister,” Kory Teneycke, Harper’s former communications director, told Maclean’s. “Beats the hell out of opposition. I don’t think Harper’s going to call an election on himself at this point in the mandate. I could see three years in, or something, going to the polls.” That would take this government to October—of 2011, not 2010.

Sources say that ever since his fall economic update in 2008 goaded the opposition parties into trying to replace him with a coalition government, Harper has consistently resisted pressure to call a quick election—or to concoct some other legislative finger trap that might provoke the opposition parties to rally against him. Last autumn, Ignatieff returned from a difficult summer recess to declare that Harper’s “time was up” and it was time to force an election. Public opinion quickly polarized sharply, and Harper enjoyed an autumnal polling honeymoon better than any he’s seen as Prime Minister. Some advisers urged him to call a quick election to capitalize on Ignatieff’s weakness. “The PM strongly resisted, not only calling an election, but any initiatives that could possibly be perceived as trying to start an election,” a senior Conservative source said.

But won’t the opposition call an election on Harper? That’s the more common route to the polls for a minority government, after all. But that’s hard for a few reasons. First, to defeat the Conservatives, every opposition party must unite against him. And as Ignatieff found out last autumn, whenever the Liberals are enjoying a brief rise in the polls, it’s at the expense of the NDP or (less often) the Bloc Québécois. That makes those parties less eager to see an election.

Second, Harper is being careful to avoid giving the opposition an issue to coalesce around. That was clear after last month’s ruling by Speaker Peter Milliken declaring that parliamentarians had a right to view documents about the treatment of Afghan detainees. The four parties in Parliament negotiated an agreement that would permit the slow release of the documents to selected MPs. While all this was going on, and for no obvious reason, the Conservatives were opening up a tidy polling lead over the Liberals after months of deadlock. Yet Harper resisted the urge to provoke, and by this week there was no issue in sight that could serve as any party’s pretext for a quick election.

Finally, Conservatives are sure the polls misstate Ignatieff’s real weakness. They note that when respondents are given the party leaders’ names when asked how they’d vote, adding Harper’s name increases Tory support while adding Ignatieff’s name is a drag on Liberal support. And it’s hard to fight a five-week election campaign without reminding people who your leader is.

“When you actually get into a presidentialized election campaign cycle with the party leaders on TV every night, pitching the message, you tend to see party support either pull your numbers or drag your numbers,” Teneycke said. “And Iggy’s a worse drag on their numbers than Stéphane Dion was.”

The only thing that could put an election on the map any time soon is one of Ignatieff’s own election commitments, which he announced with great fanfare at the end of his party’s Canada 150 thinkers’ conference in Montreal in March. That’s a pledge to postpone billions in corporate tax cuts to pay for environmental and social programs. The next such cut comes into effect at the start of 2011. If they go ahead, Ignatieff has no way to pay for the rest of his platform. That prospect may, of course, make him change his mind under pressure, but it just might lead him to try forcing a fall election in five months.
Of course, if he does, he’ll run into the same problem he faced last September, which is that Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe have no interest in forcing an election to protect Michael Ignatieff’s credibility.

So don’t bet on an early election. This is good news for the Conservatives, because many of them are persuaded that over time, Canada is evolving to reinforce Conservative strengths. “I think time is on the government’s side,” Teneycke said. “Electoral redistribution is the most untold story of what’s going to change the political landscape in Canada.”

He was referring to Bill C-12, the so-called Democratic Representation Bill, which would add seats in the House of Commons to bring the distribution of electoral ridings more closely into line with population growth. By some estimates, the bill would give Alberta six more seats, British Columbia seven, and Ontario 21, while leaving the rest of the country unchanged in seat counts. “If you rebalance for population growth, on the last election results you’d have a Harper majority,” Teneycke said. “Places in the country that are growing in population are places where the Conservatives do very well.”

Well, maybe. First, it’s important to emphasize that this is a long game. The bill has to pass the Commons. Then the next census has to happen, in 2011. Then the results have to come back, in early 2012, and form the basis for an arm’s-length commission to make recommendations about new riding boundaries. It’s hard to imagine all that happening before the next election, no matter how long that’s delayed.

Secondly, on current form the Conservatives would have a hard time translating extra seats into a majority, says Barry Kay, a Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist who designed the LISPOP model for projecting seat counts from polling results. That’s because the Conservatives have been showing lower support in Ontario this spring than in the 2008 elections.

Still, extra seats in Alberta and British Columbia help offset any Liberal advantage in Ontario, even if the Liberals manage to translate a pre-electoral polling advantage into results at the ballot box. The trend lines do not point to a spectacular Conservative breakthrough. They do suggest a continued erosion of Liberal support while Conservative support holds steady. Commentators often remark that Conservative support has a low ceiling, usually somewhere around the mid-30s. What they more rarely point out is that the Conservative floor is solid and not much lower than the ceiling. Ignatieff’s floor, on the other hand, keeps sinking.

Privately, Jean Chrétien has been known to make gentle fun of Harper’s inability to rack up the kind of consecutive majorities that seemed so easy for the Chrétien Liberals through the 1990s. But even Chrétien would concede that a narrow victory beats a defeat, especially if hope of better days still lies tantalizingly ahead. It’s that attitude that must give him a lot to talk about when he runs into Stephen Harper these days.

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