Halftime at Parliament

The last federal election was on May 2, 2011. Barring catastrophe, the next one is scheduled for October 19, 2015. That makes the midpoint July 26, 2013. That means it’s all downhill from here, folks, and that means we can start predicting who’s going to win the next election! Will it be Stephen Harper leading the Conservatives to victory again? Or what?

I’m going to break the mould here and not offer any actual single victory prediction. I want to ponder each of the several factors that I think are going to hold sway in the next election, and you can pick and choose which results will be likeliest, plug them into your own matrix and predict the winner yourself.

Of course, the first question has to be whether Stephen Harper wants to run for another term. It’s incredibly easy to assume he will: he has a fair shake at winning and has already shown he likes to be in charge.

But consider this: by 2015 he will have been prime minister for 9 years, a length that few prime ministers exceed. He will also have been a party leader for 13 years. Brian Mulroney was prime minister for 9 years and Preston Manning was leader of the Reform Party for 13 years. Harper’s brash (though not unusual) monarchism and his openness with fiddling with Canada’s symbolism (his tinkering with the ephemera of the Armed Forces comes to mind) shows he’s a man who cares a lot about symbolism, and the prospect of retiring once he has equalled the two men who shaped his early political career might be alluring to him.

Consider also that he’s already bested every leading figure of the Opposition from his turbulent times in his minority governments: Layton is dead; Rae retired; Martin putters around on his farm; Ignatieff and Duceppe were tossed from the House; Dion moulders on the backbenches; and Elizabeth May has been reduced from being one of the loudest voices outside the Commons to the smallest one inside it. He doubtless has the stomach to take on a new generation of leaders, and has steered his party toward doing so, but will he have the same drive to conquer as he did when his legacy depended on it?

Speaking of which, his legacy IS secure. He has changed symbols, attitudes, assumptions, theories, policies, practices, systems and laws in some fashion across nearly every region, industry, constituency and social construct in this country. In doing so, he has pulled through scandal after scandal with almost no crippling damage to his electability, but it’s not hard to imagine a death of a thousand cuts over another two years making the prospect of another four filled with struggle, dissention, scandal and crisis seem unpalatable to Mr. Harper.

In my opinion, he will not run again. In my own mind, he will announce his intention to step down in February, to coincide with the anniversary of his first victory. He will call the leadership convention in late June or early July, to use the spring session of the House to tie up loose ends in the House and receive accolades from its members; to ensure the convention is cocooned in the patriotic fervour of Canada Day; to give the new leader plenty of time on the summer BBQ circuit to glad-hand; and to give him the option to go straight into a longer fall campaign or work on some policies over the summer and call back the House for a week or two in late August or early September to waft them before the electorate.
But that just raises the question of who would replace Harper. Before the last election I would have singled out Lawrence Cannon as a strong contender. 2011 changed that, not only because Cannon lost his seat and consequently is likely having too much Brie and Beaujolais in his new job to want to run again, but also because the last election’s results proved conclusively that Cannon’s primary leg up – his being the Tories’ ringer in Quebec politics – was unnecessary to the party’s success. After all, they had a Quebec caucus so dire that even Maxime Bernier could stumble into his redemption, but they had a majority without them, n’est-ce pas?

The Conservative Party will either choose a hard-right leader to buttress their Western base, or an ideologically soft leader to bait their hooks with in Ontario and suburban BC. In the first camp is Jason Kenney, nowadays the employment minister, and is often touted as a shoo-in for the top, despite being a huckster and a charlatan. (Then again, if Canada’s history – from Macdonald to Chretien – has shown us anything, it’s that hucksterism is a ticket upon which you can ride pretty far indeed.) Any member of the Mike Harris Three would have more than enough leadership ability and big-portfolio cachet, but Tony Clement’s popularity is tenuous at best, Jim Flaherty is not in very good health and John Baird’s abrasiveness is further hampered by whispers surrounding his personal life which I will not repeat (let’s just say he’s said to frequent the Babylon Club when he’s in Toronto and leave you to do the Googling). Then of course there’s the far-out ringers like Mark Warawa or Maurice Vellacott, who don’t stand a chance of winning but could throw some old-fashioned Reform grit into the cogs at a crucial juncture.

In the second camp are slimmer pickings. Peter Mackay was at Harper’s right hand in the early days and the troops loved him as defence minister, but he has a bumbling, Joe Clarkish way about him that does not inspire the sort of loyalty demanded by strong leaders like Harper. There’s Jim Prentice, an Albertan, a Progressive Conservative, an upstanding cabinet minister, and a man deep in Harper’s good graces: an ideal candidate. But he retired a while ago, so he probably isn’t looking to run. Joe Oliver has proven himself competent and able to get along with others, but there’s a good chance he hasn’t got ambitions for the top job; ditto Rob Nicholson; ditto Diane Finley. The recent spate of lady premiers might raise the possibility of a woman reaching for the top; Lisa Raitt and Leona Aglukkaq seem the best suited for it, but might be a little too green for the big leagues yet.

If I was going to make a pick I would go with either Rona Ambrose or James Moore. They both are totally loyal to the party, solidly Conservative, have handled multiple big-time portfolios and both are members of groups the Conservatives want to reach out to (respectively, women and suburban British Columbians).

Their leader chosen, the Conservatives will need to decide which opposition party to strike against the hardest. Conventional wisdom has long held that the Conservatives regard the national popularity of the NDP and the Liberals as a seesaw: if the Liberals become more popular than the NDP they start winning seats in Ontario; if the NDP becomes more popular than the Liberals they get seats in the West. The obvious solution is to hammer the NDP in the West and the Liberals in Ontario and the Maritimes. The party line will likely to be to show Justin Trudeau as a pretty-boy airheaded dilettante whose leadership team consists of an ethnically diverse collection of mannequins they got at a Zellers closing sale; and to show Thomas Mulcair as a paranoid commie conspiracy-spouting whackaloon whose appearances in Tory attack ads will stop just short of having tinfoil hats Photoshopped onto his head. Whither Quebec? The Conservatives, to be blunt, don’t need it; and beyond the seats it’s been winning or has won before and could again, in the Quebec City area, the Beauce, the Saguenay region and Pontiac, it won’t do much heavy lifting.

The Liberals and NDP have their long-term futures staked on this election. The Liberals can either get back in second place or lose the precious Trudeauvian elixir of life. The NDP will either cement its status as the left-wing party of the nation – and of Quebec especially – or it can slide back to third-party status. It’s likely fair to say that 2015 will see a three-party race in a truer sense than ever before in Canadian federal history.

This brings us to the Bloc Quebecois, who were reduced to four seats at the last election. The last time the Bloc had four seats was before it big sweep in 1993. Could they pull it off again? I say no. The Bloc’s back has finally been broken. Due to the elimination of the public vote subsidy their coffers will be running on fumes come next election, and their leadership team is pitiful compared to Lucien Bouchard or the young Gilles Duceppe that they had going into the 1993 election. Plus, the first Bloc sweep came at a time when a deeply unpopular Liberal government in Quebec was giving a popularity boost to a Parti Quebecois deeply devoted to sovereignty. Nowadays, the PQ is in power and not at its heights of popularity, and not nearly as committed to separation as it was under Lévesque or Parizeau. They might bounce back a little – eight or 10 seats in Montreal’s east end, on the South Shore and in Gaspésie – or else they will disappear entirely.

What issues are the next election going to be fought over? Many clamour for Senate reform; but the only way that will ever be done is in a terrible Meech Lake-style foofaraw; ditto the monarchy. National unity is something that will hopefully never see its 1990s heyday again. Defence and public safety don’t get the same coverage as they used to, and it’s been awhile since someone came up with plans to fix healthcare. My guess for the five topics in the leaders’ debates will be the economy, employment, natural resources, Native welfare and disaster relief.
And that leaves us with the most important question: that of who wins which seats.

The next election will see the House of Commons increased by 30 seats: 6 in BC, 6 in Alberta, 15 in Ontario and 3 in Quebec. The Conservatives can win the BC and Alberta seats with one hand tied behind their backs, and one of the Ontario seats is in suburban Ottawa, in a swath of land – starting at the western metropolitan limits of Ottawa and extending west to Bancroft, south to Perth and north to Pembroke – that is the closest thing Canada has to Tea Party country east of Winnipeg. The rest of the Ontario seats are in the GTA, making them winnable for the Tories, but by no means a sure thing, especially if the Liberals get a big boost sometime between now and then.

In the West, the Liberals will be looking to regain toeholds in Vancouver and Winnipeg. The NDP might even pick up one or two more seats in urban Edmonton, depending on demographics. But the big battleground out west will be Saskatchewan. Until now the urban centres in the province have been divided up and lumped in with rural areas, ensuring Conservative near-sweeps of Saskatchewan. But in this next election the ridings were redrawn to make separate urban and rural ridings, so unless the Conservative do their due diligence the NDP may pick up between 1 and 6 seats in Regina and Saskatoon.

Ontario, if things stay the same, will likely return the same results: NDP seats in the north, in Windsor and in Hamilton, Liberal seats in London, Guelph, Kingston and Ottawa, Tories in the rural southern counties and a three-way race in the GTA. But a well-placed hubbub could send the status quo crashing down here more easily than anywhere else, so keep your ears pricked up.

Quebec, as it always is, is the most unpredictable race in the country, even leaving aside the uncertainty of the BQ’s future. There’s a good chance the NDP are safe now in north Quebec (as they are in north Ontario) and in the loony-left banlieues of east Montreal, Laval and Longeuil, but they’ll be fighting tooth and nail to keep the Liberals from expanding out of west Montreal. I hate taking the concept of vote-splitting seriously enough to consider, but if there are any major Bloc or Tory gains in Quebec you can bet a split vote’s behind it.

The Maritimes are, conversely, likely to be the most stable seats in the country (other than the territories, which probably won’t change hands at all. The only interesting question will be whether the Conservatives will keep being shut out of Newfoundland.

And so those are the questions you need to answer. Is Harper running again? If not, who? What’s the plan of attack? What will people care about? Whither the Bloc? Whither Quebec? Whither Saskatchewan? And can the Tories avoid screwing up so bad they lose Ontario? I can answer those questions, of course; but not for another 2 years, 2 months and 24 days.


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