Sunday, August 24, 2008

Destination unknown

While the possible abuses of a general election call which I discussed this morning might represent serious problems for Canadians at large, they figure to be features rather than bugs for a government as obsessed with political advantage as the Harper Cons. And that means that Harper's posturing about forcing a federal election makes a general election call somewhere between a sure thing, and a possibility depending on how the by-election campaigns turn out. However, let's note that there are a couple of factors which could counterbalance the general increase in the likelihood of a fall election.

First, there's the question of just how fully the Libs believe their own rhetoric. For nearly a year, Dion and his party have tried to justify propping up the Cons by saying they didn't want to go to the polls on Harper's terms. But if the Libs genuinely believe that to be a reason to avoid an election, then surely they have to take a close look at why Harper would be publicly pushing for one now. And it may not be out of the question that they'd bite the bullet once again if they once again decide that they shouldn't accept an election which the Cons want.

Mind you, Harper's shift in focus from brinksmanship on single confidence votes to demanding support for his party's entire agenda might make it more difficult for the Libs to bite. But it may also signal a push toward a more foundational change in the federal political scene.

After all, it's been no secret that the Cons' most likely path to a longer-term majority involves reassembling the Mulroney coalition - including a significant chunk of the current Bloc. And that may make Harper's meeting with Duceppe and the public messaging around it particularly significant.

Consider what would happen if the Cons publicly offered to build their latest parliamentary agenda around concrete mesasures to reduce the role of the federal government and provide increased scope of action to Quebec (in contrast to the window dressing he's provided so far), with little or no focus on the rest of the right-wing agenda.

At that point, Duceppe would face an awfully difficult choice. One option would be to lend his party's support to the new Harper agenda - which would serve best from the perspective of painting the Bloc as able to influence government action, but would also legitimize the Cons as a voting option for soft (and potentially even harder) nationalists and raise the question of why the Bloc would continue to exist as a separate party. The other option would be to reject any entreaty - which would preserve the difference in the parties' purposes, but expose the Bloc to the argument that the Cons could have given Quebec more autonomy if Bloc votes and seats shifted their way.

Either way, the first step of seeking support for the Cons' agenda seems to lead down the road of looking to bring all or part of the Bloc into the Cons' tent. And Harper would surely be glad to hold off on an election this fall if it means going far enough down that path before October 2009.

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