Harper's election plan, in plain view

WELLS: Harper relishes the thought that the coalition crisis of 2008 will be repeated

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

In April 2007, the Harper government, 15 months into its first mandate, opened a 17,000-sq.-foot campaign headquarters far outside downtown Ottawa. They invited TV crews in and gave reporters a tour.

Of course Liberals took the move as evidence of a plan for an election. “They fully intend to defeat themselves at the first opportune moment,” Liberal MP David McGuinty said. “It’s clear they don’t want to do the job.” There was a lot of that talk going around. I collected money bets from senior colleagues and veteran Liberal strategists who were sure an election was weeks away.

But Stephen Harper often talks about an election to delay an election, not to hurry one along. Whatever his strengths, the Conservative leader is no mind-reader. So when he’s not entirely sure the opposition intends to leave him alone to govern, he assumes they need to be scared away from election plans.

The same sort of thing is happening this month. Michael Ignatieff took a summer-long bus tour and shook a lot of hands. The reviews were good. Perhaps the Liberal is feeling giddy. So the Conservatives are showing their teeth.

“Canadians don’t want an election,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told a lunchtime crowd in Ottawa on Monday. “Our government isn’t seeking one. But the opposition coalition—the Michael Ignatieff-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition—has been consistent in one thing, if only one thing: from the beginning of the global economic crisis, they have put their own self-interest above Canadians.”

In British Columbia, meanwhile, election-style campaign signs sporting the photos of smiling Conservatives have begun to spring up. These Conservatives, they like to err on the side of readiness.

When a vote does come, the Conservatives will have their lines ready. “Canadians will face a stark choice,” Flaherty told the Ottawa lunch crowd. “A majority government, one way or another. A stable, national majority under Stephen Harper’s leadership. Or the reckless coalition of Michael Ignatieff, the NDP, and the Bloc Québécois.”

Wait a minute. The opposition isn’t talking about a coalition. Flaherty had an answer for that. “Of course they deny they’ll officially join forces. But they did it before. They’ll do it again.”

Since he gave this magazine an interview for New Year’s 2009, Harper has insisted consistently that the coalition crisis of 2008 will be repeated. Actually, he seems to relish the thought. There was a buzz around town after Flaherty’s speech. Inhabitants of the capital colony had spent September telling one another decorum was the order of the day, and this talk of confrontation set off a flurry of tut-tutting. But the Prime Minister has been using almost the same rhetoric in recent campaign-style speeches delivered, on purpose, well away from most cameras and reporters.

On Sept. 14 in a wedding hall in Edwards, Ont., Harper said, “Friends, next time the choice will be either a Parliament where we Conservatives have the majority of seats, or one where the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois have the majority of seats.”

Pay no attention to the opposition’s current silence on the matter, he said. “Regardless of what they tell you during an election, they will form a coalition the day after that election is over. Last time they waited—and they found out that that meant they couldn’t get away with it without having another election.” He said the opposition could never campaign on an explicit promise to form a coalition. “They would have been slaughtered.”

I’ve noticed this line of argument repeatedly from Harper over nearly two years, and written about it often on my blog. The response from non-Conservative readers is consistent. First someone laughs at the spectacle of Harper raising this silly business of a coalition. Then someone else says, “Besides, what’s wrong with a coalition? It’d just be reflecting the will of Canadians and the rules of Parliament.”

Just so. The Liberals will dismiss talk of a coalition until the late days of an election campaign. If at that point they are within a few points of the Conservatives, either ahead or behind, they’ll face questions about how they might keep Harper from his third term. The answer is easy to predict: cacophony, as Liberals and other opposition politicians respond in different and contradictory ways under high stakes.

Harper is doing everything he can to make it obvious this is his election strategy. Of course nobody in Ottawa is paying any attention. But two conclusions are easy to draw from the line Harper has taken. First, he won’t run on elaborate policy proposals. He’s offering stability against the deluge; he’d complicate his message, and provide a target, if he offered adventure too.

Second, Harper is obviously setting himself up for trouble if he wins another minority. He’s said the only conceivable Conservative government is a majority. He’s sent his finance minister out to say the same. Why say he couldn’t govern next time with the same number of seats he governs with today?

Partly, I suspect, because he believes it. The 2008 coalition crisis was harrowing for him. He saw that pre-election denials of a coalition plan meant nothing. He really believes his only protection against a repeat lies in a majority. Does saying it out loud save him? Only the election will answer that.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.