Published Apr. 20, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.
This advice is not for the faint of heart, but if you have a spare loonie or two, you might plunk them down on a modest wager: that Stephen Harper will call a general election by early summer.
Oh, I know that’s not conventional wisdom in Ottawa these days. Everyone is proceeding on the assumption that the election will not happen until Oct. 19, the scheduled date. Although no one is talking openly about an early election, you can bet your bottom loonie that the Conservatives are thinking about it.
Here’s the scenario. Finance Minister Joe Oliver presents his maiden budget on Tuesday. The government doesn’t have much fiscal wiggle room, but the budget will offer some fuel for the Tory spin machine. There will be some infrastructure spending, which can be spun into a major investment in job creation. There will be some tax relief, including income-splitting, for mid- to upper-income families, whom the party will be targeting. Continue reading
And the budget will show a small surplus. The Tories will not advertise that they inherited a surplus from the previous Liberal regime, or that they turned the surplus into a record deficit, and only now, a decade in, are proposing to break even. But they can be expected to saturate the airwaves with advertising to the effect that, under Harper, Canada has become the envy of the world, if not the galaxy, for its steady economic management in the face of collapsing oil prices and for its brave war on terror at home and abroad.
As the scenario unfolds, nothing will happen right away on the election front. The Conservatives will be polling frantically to see if their post-budget propaganda has moved the electorate. They have been in a deep hole since ascendancy of Justin Trudeau to the Liberal leadership. The latest polls show them finally edging ahead of the Liberals and, although the trend may be in the Tories’ direction, their margin of one percentage point (32-31) in one composite of recent polls is decidedly precarious.
The date Tory strategists will be watching is May 5. That’s the day of the provincial election in Alberta, Harper’s home province and power base, which the Tories have ruled for 44 unbroken years. May 5 could end that run. Voters there are seriously angry. The new premier, Jim Prentice, is in deep trouble. His approval rating is an abysmal 22 per cent; his disapproval rating is 63 per cent. The latest polls put his Progressive Conservatives in third place, behind both Wildrose and the New Democrats.
It must be noted that the opinion polls were wildly wrong in the last Alberta election, but if they are not wrong on May 5, look for Harper to stuff his election genie back in the bottle until fall.
There’s another date to note. That’s May 2, the day Harper’s current mandate enters its fifth year. If the various portents – budget fallout, polls and Alberta – are favourable, the fifth anniversary of the election of his majority government might be an opportune time to call for a new mandate.
Although Harper is a polarizing figure, he has actually worn somewhat better with voters than two of his predecessors, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, who were deeply unpopular by the time they were eight or nine years into their prime ministries, as Harper is now. Yet he’s in a position today to win at least a minority government, thanks to the divided opposition.
The wild card in all this is the Mike Duffy trial, which continues until May 12, then takes a break and resumes from June 1 to 19. It has potential to do electoral damage to the Conservative brand. I’m not convinced it is a necessarily game changer, but with this trial you never know what the next testimony may produce.
So if you are tempted to bet on a June or early July election, okay. But keep it to a few loonies.