Election windows in 2011: There's only one

Paul Wells on why he doesn't expect a federal election until 2012

“That doesn’t necessarily mean the Harper government is legislating less. Franks said the government pushed about half of a normal year’s legislation through in a single bill — this year’s massive budget implementation bill which included varied measures dealing with all manner of subjects from environmental assessments to the post office to the future of Canada’s atomic energy industry…

“‘What they’ve done is in this (budget implementation bill) is just whop, whop, whop, whop, whop, a whole bunch (of measures),’  he said.

“‘The country didn’t even know what happened.'”

Canadian Press, today

As is so often the case, the prime minister isn’t even trying to hide what he’s up to. Before the G-20 this summer Stephen Harper sat down with reporters from Reuters. One of their questions was about his skimpy record of legislative achievement. Hey, big shot, didn’t you promise to recalibrate after you prorogued? Where’s the new direction?

“I think in the end we actually got some pretty good results,” Harper replied. “Particularly in the closing days. As you know, we got the budget implementation bill through.”

One bill? “The budget bill was wide-ranging legislation that had a lot, not just of important budgetary measures, but important measures for the Canadian economy. So I think the passage of the budget bill, in and of itself, made the parliamentary sessions productive.”

What I need to emphasize here is that Harper wasn’t waving around the one bit of work he’d got done to claim he’d implemented a lot of change. He had actually implemented a lot of change. As Ned Franks notes in Joan Bryden’s story above, this budget implementation bill was a whopper: 900 pages, with amendments to five dozen laws. It changed environmental assessment of energy projects. It provided for the sale of AECL. It ended the Canada Post monopoly on overseas mail. And more more more.

At the time, Michael Ignatieff was stinging from his autumn 2009 attempt to “bring the government down,” something the Liberals have never been able to do without other parties’ help. As a direct result he had a new OLO senior staff who had come on board expressing a strong preference that he give them a year to fix up his office and platform. So he was out of the business of voting against the government on confidence bills. Knowing this, the New Democrats launched a little campaign against the budget bill. They kept at it. And at it, soon making the Liberals as much the target of their critique as the Conservatives. They put together a video of Jack Layton’s critiques of the “Trojan Horse” bill:

But that was last year. Times change.This year Jim Flaherty seems to view the NDP as likelier partners in passing his budget. The Ottawa air is thick with sweet talk, and of course there is precedent: In 2009 — as soon as Ignatieff dropped his party’s habit of voting for government bills, or voting against them in insufficient number to defeat them, and actually started sending every Liberal MP to vote against the government — Layton immediately abandoned his own habit of voting against the government. Of course he dressed that pig up in high-gloss lipstick, announcing that unlike the miserable obstructionist Liberals he was interested in getting “results for Canadians.” And Harper and Flaherty were happy to toss a billion or so toward something that could be portrayed as an NDP priority. Of course it was a fig leaf. These days Flaherty spends over $200 billion a year on programs.

Anyway, the Liberals stopped being afraid of voting against the government, so the NDP became afraid of voting against the government, and as soon as the Liberals got their scaredy-cat back on, the NDP went back to making fun of the Liberals. One day, if both of them get it together to vote against the government, Gilles Duceppe will look down his nose at them and tell Bloc MPs to vote with the government. This is why, when Harper gives a speech about the evils of The Coalition and somebody tells him there’s no such thing, I am quite sure he says to himself, I know. That’s what makes it so great.

But my point today is that while they all dance this tedious process dance, stuff is happening. A 900-page budget bill changes the country, and a decision to let such a bill pass is a decision to let Harper change the country. Some Liberals yesterday were elated over the game of footsie between Flaherty and the NDP. That means he’s afraid of an election! He’s afraid of Ignatieff! Their internal polls must show it’ll be a slaughterhouse! Victory is ours! Maybe not. Maybe it meant Flaherty wants his budget to pass because it’ll be another 1,000 pages of changing the country, which is what Conservatives are in business to do, and as long as there’s no election they can keep right on doing it.

But here’s the thing. The process dancers are always telling themselves that if there is no election now there can always be one later. This makes it easier to live a life of constant capitulation. There are, in 2011, two flaws with this thinking. First, Trojan-horse budget bills mean one vote is not the same as others: if the budget implementation bill passes, Ned Franks will tell you that’s half a year’s Conservative work done in one swoop. Whop whop whop whop whop.

Second, there will certainly be elections this year — in several provinces and territories. Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan all go to the polls in October and November, along with others I’ve forgotten (that‘ll get me into trouble). Now, there’s actually no rule that says you can’t have simultaneous federal and provincial campaigns, but the provincial caucus in each of those provinces will scream blue murder at any leader who tries. In some parties that’s a manageable problem — the Liberal Saskatchewan caucus is not large enough to make a mighty noise — but when they’re all clustered together like this, it’s enough to make already-leery leaders leerier.

So. It is almost impossible to imagine a fall election this year. And if Harper and Flaherty get another omnibus budget bill through the House this spring, there will be no need for an election because they will have implemented half, or more, of the year’s Conservative agenda.

The opposition parties will realize this, decide it matters, and stop this government over its budget. Or they will lose the year’s only window and we will have a 2012 election.

My money’s on 2012.

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