Tuesday, April 3, 2007

How will Dion look in the fall

A route to the polls
But pulling the plug on this Parliament is full of political landmines

By GREG WESTON April 3, 2007 TorontoSun

As election fever builds in the backrooms of Wonderland on the Rideau, a prominent Liberal strategist tries his best to paint a happy face on Stephane Dion's fledgling leadership and a party staring at the political slaughterhouse.

"Well, we would be going into an election with very low public expectations of Stephane," the Grit guru offers. "So that's always a really good thing."

The really bad thing for the Liberals, of course, is there are some perfectly good reasons the public has come to expect so little from the Grit leader who couldn't.

And no one outside Gritdom is assessing those factors more closely these days than Stephen Harper and his political generals.

Harper has only one overarching political objective in his current reign -- winning a majority.

With public opinion polls showing the Conservatives touching the magic majority mark of about 40% support, pressure on Harper is growing almost daily to somehow pull the plug on the current Parliament. It won't be easy.

Bringing down the government would require a united vote of all three opposition parties, and unless the Liberals have a sudden urge to commit political suicide, the Tories won't be defeated any time soon.

That leaves Harper looking for an excuse to say he needs a new mandate, that he can no longer govern with all the (largely imagined) obstruction by the opposition parties, and if the Governor General would be so kind as to sign on the dotted line, the country can have its third federal election in as many years.


However a spring call to the polls might happen, speculation soared last week with the stunning success of the conservative Action Democratique party in the Quebec election. Mario Dumont is a Mini-Me to Harper, and the ADQ's electoral success has given the PM a popular and powerful new ally in the one province that likely holds the key to the PM's cherished national Conservative majority.

At the same time, the separatist Parti Quebecois suffered a near rout. As a result, if a federal election were held today, Gilles Duceppe and his Bloc Quebecois would be forced to run their campaign with largely the same separatist ground forces that were just defeated, demoralized and left in disarray by the provincial election.

With both the Bloc and the federal Liberals back on their heels, the opportunity for Harper and the Conservatives to move in for the kill has to be more than a little tempting.

It is also an opportunity that may not last for more than a few weeks.

The biggest casualty of the Quebec electoral upset was PQ leader Andre Boisclair. If Boisclair walks the plank there are already widespread reports Duceppe may be persuaded to quit the Bloc and come to the separtists' rescue.

And if Duceppe leaves his federal separatist party, it is unlikely Harper would risk a voter backlash in Quebec by calling an election to catch the Bloc with their leadership down. It may well be to Harper's ultimate advantage, too.

With no obvious successor to Duceppe in the wings, and the separatist movement in tatters, the Bloc may disintegrate to the point some of its MPs might even defect to Harper's Conservatives.

Of course, there are many other factors, like waiting until Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams gets back on his meds, or at least stops running national attack ads branding Harper a promise-breaking creepo.

The PM also wants to roll out their new and improved Conservative green plan in the next few weeks, and make sure it is better than their first dud.

In the end, Harper's pivotal electoral decision may hang on answering a single question.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall. How will Dion look in the fall?