Fixed-date election comes back to bite Harper
PM is finding out the hard way that timing is to politics what location is to real estate
If he were not boxed in by his own fixed-date election law, Stephen Harper might be headed back to the House of Commons on Labour Day instead of launching the official countdown to a mid-October election.
Given a choice, no prime minister in his right mind would opt to campaign for a fourth mandate in the current circumstances – with no wind at the back of his party and precious few bright spots on the horizon.
Instead he or she would use the time left in the government’s five-year mandate for a much needed recast, a change in the channel of the political conversation or, if all else failed, a walk in the snow.
Unless he had to, what prime minister would want to commit to an uphill election hampered by a Senate scandal, a high-profile trial that could see more than half-a-dozen former movers-and-shakers of his government in the witness box be- tween now and voting day and with a glaring deficit of proven talent on his front bench?
The Conservative pre-election season got off to a terrible start last week, when Dean Del Mastro – the former MP that Harper once hand-picked to act as his point man on ethics in the House of Commons – was sentenced to a month in jail for breaking the election law.
There is no good time in the life of a government for a former parliamentary secretary to the prime minister to be led in handcuffs and leg irons to a police wagon. But if one could choose, one would want such an episode to be as far removed from an election as possible.
Del Mastro’s sentencing was just one of many ethical clouds on the Conservative pre-election horizon.
The prime minister’s former chief-of-staff, Nigel Wright, is scheduled to take the stand in the trial against Mike Duffy – another of Harper’s fallen stars – in mid-August, less than 10 weeks before election day.
At the same time on the policy front, momentum is building for a breakthrough at the negotiating table of the TransPacific Partnership at what may be the worst moment for the ruling Conservatives.
Between now and the election campaign Harper could have to choose between getting a trade agreement that he sees as a major part of his legacy or walking away from the deal rather than risk rural seats he can ill afford to lose by giving up Canada’s supply management system.
Harper could have jumped the gun on his election law. If the past is any indication, vot- ers do not necessarily exact much of a penalty on government leaders who fast-forward to the end of their mandate.
A spate of media speculation as to a possible spring election earlier this year suggests that at least some government insiders believed Harper should send Canada to the polls before the prescribed Oct. 19 date.
In Harper’s place, Jean Chretien, for one, would have called an election late last fall – with the Parliament Hill shooting still fresh in voters’ minds and an upcoming new round of tax cuts in the window.
The former Liberal prime minister always tried to beat the electoral iron when it was hot for his party.
A side benefit of calling a snap election is that it tends to short-circuit the political retirement process.
With their party thrown into an early election battle, John Baird, Peter MacKay, James Moore and others would have had less opportunity to bail out.
The Conservatives had been in power for only a few months when they brought in the 2006 fixed-date election law.
Their recent experience in opposition still framed their thinking. Harper resented the fact that Chretien had used the electoral calendar to cheat the opposition parties of a level electoral playing field for a decade.
But as he is finding out the hard way these days, timing is to politics what location is to real estate.
Knowing what he does today, chances are that Harper – whose government spent much energy creating as Conservative-friendly an electoral environment as possible – would not have relinquished control over the biggest strategic advantage a ruling party leader used to enjoy.