Welcome, Canada, to the issueless election campaign. On October 14, 2008, we will elect a new Parliament that will, most likely, return either a strengthened Conservative minority, or a slight Conservative majority, to Ottawa. The Conservatives’ justifications for abandoning in spirit, if not in letter-of-the-law, their own fixed election date legislation that called for an October 2009 poll, have been weak at best. They have offered no discernible agenda to the public, and seem happy that the fascinating, supercharged U.S. campaign will relegate our own campaign to page-two status.
Calling an election without losing a confidence vote in Parliament comes at a cost to Harper. It chips away at hard-earned reputation as a principled, do-what-you-say politician. And, it means he doesn’t get to define an election campaign on a key issue of his choosing (as he attempted several times last year – Afghanistan, the budget, the Senate – only to have the Liberals walk out and abstain rather than force a writ.) But this cost was certainly calculated in by Harper’s strategy circle, and was determined to be worthwhile.
Why was it determined to have been worthwhile? Because, in the end, no one believes the public will vote the Liberals into power simply because the election was called a year early. So, the question becomes: what is the potential gain to be had here, to make the blow to the reputation worthwhile? The answer, I believe, has to be something more than simply a hail-mary shot at getting a coveted majority in Parliament. I think it also has to do with the tenuous status of Stephane Dion’s leadership, which, unless a miracle happens, will be coming to an end shortly.
My guess is this: word got out that, if the Liberals showed poorly in the now-cancelled September by-elections, Steffi would have been dumped, and Bob Rae would have been installed as leader, with nearly a year in the position ahead of himself to prepare for the guaranteed October 2009 showdown. I’ve been saying it for nearly two years now: the only Liberal that the Cons fear is the slippery, slick media darling, Bob Rae. A one-year campaign of personal destruction against the Conservatives, combined with a one-year Obama-esque deification of the former Ontario premier, was the nightmare scenario that Harper did not want to face.
With a new mandate earned this October, the Dion dumping will be delayed at least a month, and the next election will likely be delayed far beyond October 2009 – in the case of a majority, the delay will be as much as four years. Methinks this issue-less, agenda-less election call is all about the Dion-Rae dynamic, and an attempt to pre-empt a showdown with a re-energized Rae-led Liberal Party, and extend this period of Liberal decline to span a generation.
Does it bother me that the Harperites are shrewd political calculators? No, not in the least. Why would one NOT want their party to understand how to play the game? Without obtaining and maintaining power, there’s no way to make positive conservative gains. Further, there is every reason to fear Bob Rae – a man with the financial means, rhetorical skills, and unprincipled opportunistic nature, to make a serious run at Harper’s job.
All that bothers me is that Harper’s Ontario-Harrisite inner circle seems to be of the faulty mindset that social conservatives are holding the party back from earning a majority; that, somehow, if the Conservatives are positioned as tough on crime, tough on the International scene, fiscally sound, and, like Liberals, absent on social issues, the media and Toronto elite will somehow fall in love. Whether or not this is the case is irrelevant; social conservatives are an equal “leg” of any successful conservative “stool”. Without them, fiscal conservatives and security hawks always eventually fall flat on their faces.