Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The time is right

I'm not quite sure how "no election until 2008" became the conventional wisdom so quickly. But I'll not only add to the list of commentators who figure a spring election is fairly likely, but suggest that the current poll numbers which some think will put off an election may in fact help to set the stage for a 2007 campaign.

Before getting to the reasons for that conclusion, I'll note first that the recent polls effectively rule out one reason for an election campaign, as they do seem to ensure that nobody's going to go into a campaign seeing a majority government or a massive gain (or loss) in seats as a foregone conclusion.

But then, the Cons are the only party with the power to call an election without cooperation in any event. Which means that it if Lib numbers were headed to majority territory, not stalled in support as they currently stand, that would likely force Harper to severely moderate his budget and parliamentary agenda in order to avoid an election, with the other opposition parties also having a strong motivation to play along.

In contrast, the current numbers leave each party with some reason to speculate about both the benefits of a quick election and the dangers of waiting much longer.

For the Cons, there's at least some case to be made that a quick election would minimize their risk, as the Libs haven't had much time to coalesce around Dion and the other opposition parties won't have a lot of pickup opportunities unless the Cons utterly tank on the Prairies. That can be weighed against the hope that Quebeckers and urban immigrant communities will buy the Cons' recent PR efforts in enough numbers to boost PMS to majority territory. Sure, that combination doesn't offer a great prospect of a majority - but if Dion grows quickly as the Libs' leader, it might well be the best chance the Cons will have.

From my perspective, that all adds up to a fairly neutral scenario: the Cons may not call an election themselves or seek to force one, but also won't be motivated to compromise much on this spring's budget. Which leaves the question of which opposition party would see a reason to support the budget rather than voting it down to precipitate a campaign. And I don't see how any of the opposition parties would find one.

The Libs would surely like a bit more time to let Dion and his team grow into their roles. But any claim the Libs now have to be Harper's main opposition would be endangered if they decided not to vote down this year's budget, particularly if it's anywhere near the Cons' fiscal framework to date. And the upside of an election is obvious given their current lead in the polls, as well as a possible internal view that the apparent reunion between the formerly feuding camps within the Libs could make any election the Libs' to lose.

Meanwhile, a delayed election always risks the Cons figuring out how to more effectively use the platform of government to build their own support. And a Harper majority in 2008 would figure to give rise to far more risk to both Dion's leadership and the current claimed party unity than any election result that's reasonably likely now.

The Bloc may be the most likely to support a Con budget given both their history of doing so, and the Cons' apparent decision to give Quebec the better of the equalization formula. But such a move could also amount to signing the Bloc's own death warrant: if the Bloc declares that Quebec has already received a fiscal deal from Ottawa worth supporting, then what's left for the party to do other than take up space in the House of Commons?

As a result, the Bloc seems likely to say either that the equalization fix isn't enough, or that other factors make the budget (and continued Con government) untenable.

As for the NDP, while its poll numbers are down from the last election, the numbers have recovered slightly from the Libs' post-convention bounce. Accordingly, the base support doesn't figure to be much lower than it was in '06, particularly if Dion's inexperience as leader shows during a campaign. From that base, there are more than a few obvious pickup opportunities based on both riding-specific candidate changes (Vancouver-Kingsway, Nickel Belt), as well as the possibility of the Cons' support in the West being hollowed out.

In addition, it's plainly in the NDP's interest to make sure that the next election happens at a time when nobody figures to win a majority government - which may not be the case a year from now.

And that's just the strategic side of the issue. When it comes to policy, there's simply no way for the NDP to vote with the Cons unless all or substantially of their budget demands are met. Which, as noted above, doesn't seem likely from the Cons' side.

In sum, while no party in Parliament seems to have a risk-free prospect of huge gains in a spring election, the current poll numbers do point to both a relatively low downside to an immediate election, and a greater risk the longer the Cons stay in power. And with that risk/reward calculation offering no reason for any party to go out of its way to avoid an election, the policy differences between the Cons and the opposition parties figure result in a trip to the polls.

No comments:

Post a Comment