In series of blog posts starting today, InterChange Associate and long-time Conservative strategist Owen Lippert, will look at the current Canadian political landscape and how it affects calculations across the political spectrum. Today, he discusses the likelihood of a fall election.
Last week, Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and former campaign chair of the Conservative party, published an insightful piece in the Globe and Mail, “One Election: Three Scenarios.” In it, he outlined the various coalition possibilities which could develop in advance of a fall election. He drew heavily on his 1998 book, Game Theory and Canadian Politics. I once told Tom that I had bought and read the book to which he replied “Ah so you are one of the twelve.” (It is, I am afraid to say, a bit dry and the best parts have nothing to do with Canadian politics but with why there are so many left-handed pitchers in baseball and why hiking trail signs give the length in metres and the elevation in feet.)
The article for me provoked two reactions: The first is that Canadians really do not like talk of coalitions before an election. My sense is that they consider that such discussion takes their vote for granted, particularly before they have cast it. Not only that, the whole issue seems vaguely European and self-absorbed. My second reaction is “Good Lord, are they really planning on a fall election?”
Election speculation has always fascinated me as a student of politics, though I am not a professor of the stuff as is Tom. Undeterred by any sense of inexperience and shame, I offer the following reasons why there will not be an election this fall. First reason: what drives the election talk at the moment is the media’s sense that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is somehow politically damaged. The opinion mavens report that he does not have a strong lead in the polls and the recent G8/G20 Summit eroded some of credibility on fiscal issues.
My gut instinct is that they are wrong and perhaps a bit biased. A more accurate assessment is that in terms of public perception Stephen Harper is pretty much where he has been for the last six years, oscillating in a narrow band of public approval in the low to mid-thirties. He has his “blue sweater” blips which push him a bit higher and his “prorogue this” moments which dip him a bit lower. Without significant movement in either direction, up or down, the supposed wear and tear on this government is unlikely to precipitate bold political challenges on the part of any of the players.
The other dampening issue, besides the state of the parties themselves, is that no compelling issue has emerged on which to base an election.
The economy is improving and no further intervention is likely to make much of a difference, at least in the short run. One suspects all the parties and all their big thinkers would joyously embrace any big vote-getting idea, but the only one with any real efficacy – tax cuts – does not produce an immediate result capable of generating a political return.
There are always lots of suggestions for how to spend more money on any number of worthy projects but neither the general public nor even the politicians, themselves, see these times as right for engaging in much more spending. The PM just squeaked over the line with the Maternal Health Initiative because it literally was motherhood, though not apple pie. Yes, there are plenty of second-tier issues of importance, but no urgency.
The fate of a fall election rests on an issue emerging into public consciousness. Of course, an election can always be about nothing in its Seinfeldian sense, as recently discussed by of all people, the former Clerk of the Privy Council, Alex Himelfarb in The Mark. But Canada just witnessed an election “about nothing” in 2008 and there is a risk that trying that again would harm not only the instigating party, but all political actors as cynicism, scepticism and apathy could increase to a distressing point. Canadians want a “something” election and one suspects they are prepared to wait for it. Parties have their own internal calculations on how to create “something,” sometimes from nothing. More on what those “things” might be in the next installment.