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

Cape Breton Post - - OP-ED - Chan­tal Hébert Chan­tal He­bert is a na­tional af­fairs writer based in Mon­treal.

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.

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