As Parliamentary break week comes to a wrap in Ottawa, politicos are watching perceived paradigm shift of sorts as suddenly the chatter has moved from Dion’s effectiveness, for the first time since his election as leader, to mounting Conservative troubles capped by the so-called In-and-Out “scandal”. As Ottawa shifts and regroups before parliamentarians return to their seats next week, let’s assess the political landscape and consider the maneuverings and motivations of the federal parties.
Ottawa observers in the press gallery have predicted that we’ll quietly move into summer as the Liberals and Conservative regroup to do battle in the fall as a few parliamentary hurdles are surpassed and Canadians have time to assess the mathematics of In-and-Out that has everyone in this town both confused and hungry for more details.
However, there are a few factors which indicate that both the Conservatives and Liberals are moving towards preparing for a summer election.
Sources of mine close to Liberal preparations have quietly passed on that Grit organizers in southern Ontario have activated their volunteer base in at least 15 ridings. In fact, Stephane Dion had a campaign photo shoot within the past week in order to get, among other things, his visage wrapped around Liberals buses. The Liberals may be moving ahead for a June election for a variety of reasons including the fact that Stephane Dion’s leadership debt – a staggering $800,000 owed to creditors – comes due at the end of June. What will Elections Canada have to say about this, if anything? If the government body acts to rebuke Dion, this will take some punch out of Liberal scandal-mongering on In-and-Out.
Conservatives on the other hand are making a few preparations. On the party side, a handful of Conservative nominations have been released in order to secure candidates as soon as possible. When it comes to the Prime Minister’s office and recent messaging, Mr. Harper at a rally last night in Montreal tested a few lines on Stephane Dion’s countless opportunities to bring down the government. One assumes that if the Liberal leader feels an urgency to send Canadians to the polls that the Conservatives will underscore this as opportunism instead. On the policy front, in the past week Stephen Harper has been messaging on what will likely be the key message of an upcoming campaign: the economy. Canadians are uncertain about the future economic climate as the US goes into recession and as the Canadian economy bellies up to the same line. In the past week, the Prime Minister has linked immigration to improving Canada’s skilled worker capacity, has emphasized stronger trade relations with India, spoken about targeting economic spending to bolster strategic Quebec industries such as aerospace and space and health sciences, and has had a tri-lateral meeting with US and Mexican leaders on SPP as a compliment to NAFTA.
In a future election campaign, Liberals in Dion’s office have told me that they will run on a theme of “wrong direction” meaning that in the climate of scandal that has been constructed, the Liberals will suggest to Canadians that the Prime Minister is taking the country along the wrong path and that the policy of this government just emphasizes this. Of course, this will be problematic for Liberals as they’ve been effectively rubber-stamping every Conservative policy that has moved through the House by abstaining from votes.
Emphasizing scandal can be risky for the Liberal campaign as it leaves campaign scripting vulnerable to unforeseen events such as the RCMP’s warning that more Liberal charges are coming with respect to the sponsorship scandal. Such a development would be uncomfortable for Dion as Canadians are reminded of Liberals stealing other people’s money to fight elections (rather than spend their own as Conservatives have done with In-and-Out).
If the Liberal intend to go to an election this summer, the knee-capping factor may be the NDP. Jack Layton’s party would not want to see the writ dropped on perceived Liberal momentum as any narrative that has Dion within arms reach of Stephen Harper would cause the “Think Twice” coalition of pseudo-socialists to reconvene and urge Canadians to vote Liberal. The ideal election scenario for Layton is a ballot question that splits Canadians left and right on an issue that leaves Liberals without any semblance of cohesion. The NDP can rest assured that Harper, the strategic chess player that he is, has crafted such a scenario. The NDP knows that going to an election on Liberal terms would be a disasterous scenario for their party as their seat count would diminish and their $1.83 per vote lost would decrease the party’s war chest by millions over the period of a future Conservative or Liberal government. The NDP has been working quietly to give a soft-landing where they can for Conservatives (the Lukiwski scandal was relatively easy on the Tories and handled much better than the freelancing done by Irene Mathyssen on James Moore) and aggravating Liberal planning where they can.
Observers that think that the Prime Minister is looking for an opportunity to orchestrate an election should take stock of a few factors. On the partisan side, Conservatives are looking forward to a policy convention scheduled for the fall. Not having had a convention since 2005, the party is preparing for the event and would rather avoid an election that would jeopardize the gathering. Most importantly however, while everyone else is distracted by the narrow scope of the daily street battle of Ottawa politics, the Prime Minister is reconfiguring the broader electoral and political landscape for sustained decades-long effect. The more time that the Prime Minister has to restructure the Canadian state, its identity and political brands, the more permanence his agenda will have. Whenever the election, of the men that will seek a mandate from the exercise, one seeks the Prime Ministership as a means to an end, while the other aimlessly covets it for no other reason than to remedy the dissonance of a desanguinated party that stands for nothing else.