CFN – The talk one hears around Ottawa these days about Stephen Harper calling a snap election is nonsense. If the prime minister called an election over the determination of Unifor (created last year from the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions) to launch an ad blitz against the Conservatives, it would be a disaster. It might prove even as grievous as Pauline Marois’ brainwave earlier this year that she could move up from her 31% result in the previous Quebec election to secure a legislative majority on the back of the supposedly unquenchable popularity of her Charter of Values and its proposed apparel police (who would tell the Québécois when they were wearing excessively conspicuous religious symbols). This was possibly the most ludicrous pretext for calling an election in Canadian history and the voters said as much.
Stephen Harper is banking heavily on the expectation that a glittering package of tax cuts will get his government re-elected, countering the sentiment among many Canadians that they’ve had just about enough of his way of doing government.
The Conservative campaign plan appears to rest on two pillars: balancing the budget and using the surplus to buy votes, and hoping Justin Trudeau defeats himself. They may have better luck with the second than the first.
Elements of the Big Buyoff are already being dangled. Mr. Harper indicated Thursday that Ottawa is close enough to eliminating the deficit that it can begin spending again. The first priority will be to keep promises made in previous campaigns, including limited tax-splitting for young families, a doubling of the contribution limit to tax-free savings accounts, and more of the targeted credits Mr. Harper so loves, particularly fitness credits for young and old.
Ontario premier David Peterson called a snap election in 1990 and Bob Rae (then a New Democrat) won. Lester Pearson, Walter Gordon and Keith Davey called a premature election in 1965 to get a federal Liberal majority, though they were only five seats short of it in a four-party House, and they gained only three MPs. Quebec premier Robert Bourassa called an election two years before the end of his term, in 1976, and proceeded to lose the government, his own constituency and the Liberal leadership.
Snap elections can be called only for plausible reasons, such as Jean Lesage and René Lévesque’s election (when Levesque was still at least nominally a Liberal) in 1962, to approve the provincial takeover of what was left of Quebec’s private-sector hydroelectric power industry.
The head of Unifor, Jerry Dias, has disdained the idea that his noisy promises to chase after the Harper government hammer and tongs will be used to justify an early election. He has predicted that a rich budget, containing all the enticements to voter affections that should have started in the late Jin Flaherty’s last budget, will be brought down with great fanfare, and that the election would follow. But that won’t work either, unless the fanfare is maintained at stentorian levels all summer until the officially projected election campaign begins around Labour Day.
The election is tentatively scheduled for October 19, 2015: Under the Canada Elections Act, a general election is to be held on the third Monday of October four years following the previous election. But the law — brought in by Harper in 2007 — doesn’t prevent the governor general, usually acting on the advice of the prime minister, from calling an election at any time.
This completely unnecessary statutory quasi-promise of a fixed-date, quadrennial elections, which is imitative of U.S. rigidity is unnecessary; the flexibility left to a majority prime minister or to parliament itself made our system more interesting. American election dates can be determined centuries in advance, as nothing — death, impeachment, war, or Old Testament plagues — can alter the dates. The French elect their presidents every five years, unless they resign (de Gaulle) or die (Pompidou) in mid-term, and the president dissolves the National Assembly for elections when he wishes. It has always been a mystery to me why Harper adopted a half-measure system for picking faux-fixed election dates, for it doesn’t really accomplish anything. But having chosen this route, and as he allegedly believes himself, Stephen Harper could only depart from this script with a good excuse for doing so.
Whatever the estimable new Finance minister, Joe Oliver, does in his first budget, an over-hasty recourse to a post-budget election would be seen as offering children candies (that were already theirs, since the government is playing with the voters’ money), for opportunistic reasons and would be a pyrotechnic fiasco.
Any premature election would be seen as an attempt to get under the wire of the upcoming Mike Duffy trial. No knowledgeable political observer that I have heard of thinks that Stephen Harper can square the circle of his assurance to Parliament that he knew nothing of Nigel Wright’s $90,000 cheque to Senator Mike Duffy with Nigel Wright’s email that he had discussed the matter with the prime minister’s office, and “we’re good to go.”
The investigating authorities have the whole relevant cyber-correspondence and have determined that there are not grounds for indicting Nigel Wright, which can be taken as assurance that neither he nor anyone else authorized to speak for the government tied the payment to Senator Duffy to any official conduct or favours. The entire rap on Duffy appears to be the original expense claims, and like any defendant in any such proceedings, Duffy deserves the full benefit of a presumption of innocence, and proving otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt will not, as far as I can see, be like falling off a log. Nor, as has been widely suggested, is Duffy likely to be unique among his colleagues in the latitudinarianism of his definition of official travel. The entire $90,000 went directly to the taxpayers; as I have written here before, on its face, this is not much of a scandal. By comparison, a hundred million vanished in Adscam.
In his haste to dispense with the diligent, popular, capable and absolutely scrupulous Mr. Wright, for dispatching money to the taxpayers on behalf of a friend with no official strings attached, the prime minister has begged the question of why he acted as brusquely as he did, while declaring his prior ignorance of the payment. He must have known that evidence would be taken under oath on the issues eventually, and that any significant discrepancy between his and Nigel Wright’s versions of their conversations about it would be extremely damaging and very untimely.
As for Stephen Harper, he deserves the presumption of propriety as well as anyone, especially as he is not accused of anything, except in the most rabidly partisan quarters. But the reflections of some commentators that the real threat to the government is Unifor and not the fall-out from the upcoming trial is bunk.
Political leaders always can run against mouthy or irresponsible labour leaders and carry the broad centre of opinion. Pierre Trudeau with the postal workers, Margaret Thatcher against the entire Trade Union Congress, Ronald Reagan with the air controllers, Charles de Gaulle against the authors of the general strike and theévénements of 1968, successive Quebec premiers from Duplessis to Bourassa against various unions, are examples. Most people know that in a society like Canada’s, where there is full protection for employees of all categories against discriminatory and exploitive employers, unions are redundant and are chiefly operated for the benefit of their leaders, or even if disinterestedly directed, are likely to inflate costs and lose jobs to lower-wage foreign competition.
The public service unions are an outrage that all Canadian governments will have to deal with, especially the teachers who are the chief authors of the erosion of the public-school systems while stuffing their pockets with inflationary salary and pension increases and other unearned benefits and while regularly blackmailing the parents of the schoolchildren with threatened or actual recourse to strikes during the school year. Of course, these are provincial matters and the whole issue is a sideshow at this point, but if Harper wants to whip up an election issue, the behaviour of some union leaders will have to be truly egregious to give him one, and he can’t move prematurely, and should not expect to distract the country from long-ripening grievances.
Also rubbish are oracular statements from the commentariat that Harper will provoke a war with the unions to assist them in taking votes back from the federal Liberals for the NDP, thereby making the anti-government split more equal than the polls now indicate it is, to help the Conservatives back to a plurality in the popular vote. These matters are impossible to calibrate so precisely.
If Harper doesn’t look like a Swiss cheese at the end of the Duffy trial, he will only be half-way home
In the same category are knowing warnings that Unifor could do to Harper what Unifor did to the Ontario Conservatives; Harper is a three-term prime minister and the most cunning political operator who has held that office since Mackenzie King. The Ontario Conservative leader, Tim Hudak, was about to become a two-time loser against a government with incandescent vulnerabilities. As in hockey, sometimes playing the man works, sometimes not.
If Harper doesn’t look like a Swiss cheese at the end of the Duffy trial, he will only be half-way home. If the game-plan then is just waiting for Justin Trudeau to self-present as an imbecile — the Carter strategy against Reagan and the Trudeau strategy against Joe Clark in 1979 (when Clark won) — the omens are very dodgy.
If Harper really, seriously, wants his government re-elected, he should let it change leaders. That does not appear to be his pleasure and I can’t blame a man for wanting to keep his job, but he must know that if he doesn’t, his countrymen will be profoundly tempted to do it for him. The only federal leaders in Canadian history to win four straight elections were Macdonald and Laurier; the only person in any serious democracy to do so in the last century was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stephen Harper is distinguishable from them.
Conrad Black is the founder of the National Post. His columns regularly appear in the National Post on Saturdays. For more opinion from Conrad Black, tune into The Zoomer on VisionTV (a property of ZoomerMedia Ltd.), Visiontv.ca. Mr. Black graciously allowed us to reprint this article on CFN.
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