Maybe we'll have have an election in... 2011

Harper acts as if he'll be around for a while; the Liberals hope the hard choices ahead will grind him down

Maybe we'll have have an election in... 2011“I don’t think 2011 should be out of the question,” a Liberal MP told me, leaning in conspiratorially.

For what? A summer full of sunshine? A return to three-button jackets? “For an election,” the MP said.

This guy’s thinking, which I’ve since learned is shared by at least a few other veteran Liberals in Ottawa, is as follows. The polls don’t favour Michael Ignatieff right now, and haven’t since he announced in September he would work to bring down the Harper government at the first chance. Indeed the polls have been so stinkeroo for the Liberals that Ignatieff has had to un-announce his September announcement. Now he’s in no hurry to replace the Harper government. Some Liberals suspect Ignatieff replaced his inexperienced, poorly connected chief of staff, Ian Davey, with the wily Chrétien-era fixer Peter Donolo because Davey didn’t foresee the popular backlash against Ignatieff’s “Mr. Harper, your time is up” announcement.

Well then. If there’s no election this autumn, will there be one in the spring? Perhaps not: the Vancouver/Whistler Olympics are in February, and for some reason an ironclad conventional wisdom has sprung up that elections must not be held near an Olympics. A federal budget will soon follow the Olympics. A budget gives the Harper Conservatives a chance to spend some $230 billion. It’s not easy to make enemies while spending $230 billion. Suddenly it’s summer, when we mustn’t have an election, followed by autumn when we mustn’t have an election, I forget why not. This is what we do in Ottawa these days: stare at the calendar, shaking our heads.

Anyway, by late 2010, the recession will be well and truly over, and (my Liberal interlocutor reasoned) there’ll be no more of this stimulus spending. Instead, the government, whoever forms it, will be belt-tightening to get out of deficits. Since belt-tightening is never pleasant or popular, Liberals are thinking it might as well be Harper who is stuck with doing it. Give the nasty work a little time to grind Harper down, and suddenly it’s 2011.

Let’s go with this theory a bit and see where it leads us. For one thing, Harper would by 2011 have passed Alexander Mackenzie, Lester Pearson and—aim high—maybe even R.B. Bennett in longevity, which would make him Canada’s 10th longest-serving prime minister. (He’d need almost another year after that to catch up to John Diefenbaker.) What’s perhaps more significant is that the very atmosphere in the capital would change, and not too soon either. Instead of careening from one crisis of parliamentary confidence to the next, the government and its opponents might finally have the luxury to take the longish view. This could come in handy for all of them. Whether in government or opposition, they all have work they’ve been postponing because they weren’t sure they’d have the time to do it.

All of this seems already to have occurred to Harper. Lately he’s started taking steps that assume he’ll be around for a while. His trips to India and China. His Supreme Court reference on Ottawa’s right to establish a national securities regulator. His judicial inquiry into the collapse of the Pacific salmon fishery. The latter two, especially, will take more than a year to play out. Harper appears to be betting he’ll still be Prime Minister when the time comes to act on their conclusions. It’s been so long since we had a government that thought about the long term that the very prospect is bracing and a bit disorienting. But good for him; even if he’s wrong in his calculations, Harper is beginning work that will serve his successor well.

Michael Ignatieff, meanwhile, gets to do the work that will improve his chances of being Harper’s successor. He, too, has already begun. He made do for nearly a year with temporary help to run the Office of the Leader of the Opposition. Now Donolo can give the place structure and order, really for the first time since 2006. Next comes a “thinkers’ conference” Ignatieff promised when he thought he’d have to fight Bob Rae for the Liberal leadership and probably now heartily regrets promising. It was to happen in September and is now scheduled for early 2010. Ignatieff’s minimal need is to impose a Hippocratic oath on this thing: first, it must do no harm to his leadership. So it mustn’t degenerate into a forum for clannish infighting or a source of quotes for future Conservative attack ads. If it actually produces any ideas that’s a sort of bonus.

One other party must adjust to the yawning chasm of non-crisis that lies ahead. Jack Layton’s NDP doesn’t get much attention around Ottawa these days, but viewed properly, that’s a problem. Layton decided in January he would do the opposite of whatever Ignatieff did. When Ignatieff was desperate to avoid an election, Layton was voting non-confidence at every turn and mocking Ignatieff’s timidity. When Ignatieff reversed polarity in September, so did Layton. Suddenly he was the Only Man Who Wanted Parliament To Work. If Ignatieff’s moves have been dumb, Layton’s must be clever. And yet, in poll after poll, the New Democrats can’t get off the floor. I think Layton has been a good leader for the NDP, but there seems to be a ceiling to his appeal. Now that the party has time to replace him, he must ask himself whether to get that process started by handing in his resignation.

Looking for more?

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