Federal budget won’t be only reason for election – Editorial

GEORGE BROWN / Off the Record

Canadians will know soon if there are enough controversial elements in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget to incite a spring federal election.

Flaherty is set to present his budget in Parliament on March 22 and while it alone is unlikely to be sufficiently volatile to enrage the opposition parties and crank up the campaign machinery, certain aspects — or their absence — may be the last straw for the Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois.

It’s unlikely a Liberal budget would be remarkably different from what the Conservatives will propose. Unless Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to provoke a non-confidence vote and subsequent election, the budget will contain no poison pills and just enough policy plums to keep the opposition party leaders pacified for another year.

The Conservative government has been careering from one issue to another for five years, propped up by the NDP, Liberals and the Bloc depending on the issue. A true coalition.

There seem to be few galvanic national issues emerging so the next election campaign will focus more on leadership than the budget, so-called scandals or such traditional “only in Canada” issues as national unity, a national day care strategy, pharmacare, free trade or the scrapping of the Avro Arrow more than 50 years ago.

Most Canadians don’t seem to understand the importance of the in-and-out campaign funding scheme that has the Conservative party in some hot water, they don’t care whether International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda was confused over her denial of support for federal aid for a support group or in contempt for misleading Parliament, and they’ve long since forgotten about the Afghan detainee issue, prorogations to avoid a non-confidence vote and a contempt of Parliament vote, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney using his office letterhead to raise money for the Conservative party, and the government breaking its own Fixed Election Date law.

Prime Minister Harper will dominate the next campaign — not that we’ll see much of him in Alberta.

While the Conservatives are unlikely to wrest Rahim Jaffer’s seat in Edmonton from NDP MP Linda Duncan, the rest of the party’s seats seem safe enough, especially with the Wild Rose Alliance party receiving a welcomed endorsement from Conservative MPs. Provincial Progressive Conservative supporters and Grumpy Old Tories will still trend to park their vote with a conservative, rather than progressive candidate.

It does seem to Canadians that the Conservatives are against more issues than they are in favour of — or is that they are just trying to undo what Canada has become after eons of Liberal governments? Outside of scrapping the gun registry and buying new fighter jets, Harper, begrudgingly, has taken a middle of the road approach to governing and spending. He has a long game in mind, obviously, building step by step to a majority government and implementation of a more conservative agenda.

At least Harper has a plan — the Liberals seem to be developing policy by opinion poll and launching trial balloons.

According to weekly public opinion polls there has been little shift in support from the results of the 2008 election: nationally, the Conservatives with 36 per cent support, hold a lead of about eight points over the Liberals, who have a 15-point lead over the NDP, who have an five–point lead over the Bloc, who has support in only Quebec. Are there any undecided Canadians left to convince? What will it take to get Canadians off the couch and out to the polls.

In Alberta, we get our information about Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff from the Conservative party’s television smear ads. Perhaps in Ontario, where the Conservatives need to gain a dozen or so swing seats to form a majority government, there are more thoughtful advertisements that tell undecided or disengaged voters what the Conservatives are about rather than how weak Ignatieff is. Perhaps, but unlikely. You might think the Conservatives would be inclined to paint a more flattering picture of the Liberal leader since he has propped up their minority government for the past two years.

We’re an election or two away from clearing the decks of all federal party leaders and replacing them with a fresh panel. If Harper wins a majority or another strong minority, it’s likely the opposition parties will replace their leaders who will again have shown that they are incapable of defeating a prime minister also can’t win the big one. If the Liberals should win a minority government, the knives will be out to replace Harper with someone more charismatic and strong enough to finally push the rudderless Liberals out of the public consciousness.

A majority of Canadians still do not embrace Harper personally nor his Conservative policies but a meek opposition has allowed the will of the minority government to dictate policies for the majority of Canadians.

It’s Harper’s election to lose.

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