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Federal Politics

Six Embarrassments Harper Could Have Dodged with May Election

Orange Alberta, Del Mastro in chains and four more Conservative miscalculations.

L. Ian MacDonald 6 Jul 2015iPolitics

L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy, the bimonthly magazine of Canadian politics and public policy. He is the author of five books. He served as chief speechwriter to prime minister Brian Mulroney from 1985-88, and later as head of the public affairs division of the Canadian Embassy in Washington from 1992-94.

This column first appeared on iPolitics. The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author's alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

There is actually nothing in Stephen Harper's fixed election date legislation that prevents him from calling an election whenever he wants.

In fact, Bill C-16 was written that way when it was adopted by a minority Parliament in 2007. As it plainly states: "Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General's discretion." Quote, unquote.

Which is exactly what Harper did on Sept. 7, 2008, calling an election for Oct. 14, precisely on the prescribed minimum writ period of 37 days. His road to a majority was supposed to go through Quebec, but didn't because of stupid campaign blunders by the Conservatives to the benefit of the Bloc Québécois.

Then in March 2011, the Conservatives were defeated in the House, not on their budget but on a contempt-of-Parliament motion moved by the Liberals and supported by both the NDP and the Bloc. This time the Conservatives returned with a majority on May 2.

The coming election will be the third since the fixed date bill was passed, but only the first under those rules -- that elections are held on the third Monday of October four years after the previous election, except when the government is defeated in the House on a question of confidence.

Or except, as we saw in 2008, when the prime minister decides to call an election at a time of his own choosing. The constitutional convention in a majority House is that an election must be called within five years of the return of the writ of the previous election.

One of the consequences of a fixed election date is the permanent U.S.-style campaign we're living through now, with no limits on what political parties and third parties can spend during the pre-writ period.

This campaign really began last October with the Conservative announcement of income splitting of up to $2,000 for couples, and an increase in the child care benefit from $100 to $160 a month per child under age 6, with the first seven months' increase of $420 coming in one cheque at the end of July.

Those cheques are in the mail. Or almost. Employment and Social Development Minister Pierre Poilievre flew all the way to Winnipeg on the government dime last week to have his picture taken with -- wait for it -- cheques coming off a printing press. It doesn't get much cheesier than that.

And now we find ourselves just one month away from the first leaders' debate, hosted by Maclean's magazine and Rogers TV on Aug. 6, a month before the writ drops for the Oct. 19 election. Welcome to the Canadian primaries.

With the pre-announcements of goodies being delivered only in July, and the scheduling of debates in August, Harper was committed to the October fixed date for the election.

But what if the child care cheques, along with income splitting tax refunds, could have been delivered in April or May? That would have given Harper the option of calling a spring election at the end of March or the beginning of April, for early to mid-May, exactly four years to the month since the last election. The budget, delayed by the collapse in oil prices, would had to have been delivered in March, rather a month later than usual on April 21.

The thinning blue line

Yet looking at composite polls for the last three months, that might have been Harper's best window for an election. One poll tracker published numbers at the weekend showing the Conservatives down five points from April through June, from 33 to 28 per cent; while the NDP were up 10 points from 23 to 33 per cent; and the Liberals were down four points from 31 to 27 per cent.

These numbers align with the new Ekos poll for iPolitics released on Friday, with the NDP at 31 per cent, the Conservatives at 28 per cent and the Liberals at 26 per cent.

Not only have the Conservatives been slipping in recent weeks, but as Ekos president Frank Graves has written, they have little room for growth, as the Conservative party is the second choice of only about 5 per cent of voters.

Some party loyalists grumble about Monday morning quarterbacking, but the PMO is full of highly-paid tacticians whose job it is to foresee and avoid political tripwires. They've been sleepwalking so far in 2015.

Here are some things the Conservatives would have avoided with an election in May that could prove to be very problematic for them in the fall:

1. The Duffy trial 

The trial of suspended senator Mike Duffy is in recess until mid-August, and the court will not sit during the campaign. But when it does resume for three weeks beginning Aug. 11, the main witness will be Nigel Wright, the former PMO chief of staff, who wrote in now-infamous personal cheque for $90,000 to cover Duffy's politically embarrassing expenses, and who wrote an email stating that "we are good to go from the PM." The question will be what did Harper know and when did he know it.

This is potentially explosive stuff, leading into the writ. In not-so-distant times, such deception would have prompted resignations. It remains to be seen in the post-shame era whether voters will hold anyone accountable if it turns out there were deliberate attempts to mislead Parliament.

2. Farmers with pitchforks

Now that President Barack Obama has garnered fast-track authority to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement without amendments or add-ons by the U.S. Congress, the Americans are in a hurry to conclude a deal over the summer. Both Republicans and Democrats want an agreement passed by the end of the year, so that it doesn't become an issue in the 2016 presidential primary season beginning in January.

The U.S., as well as Australia and New Zealand, want Canadian dairy and poultry supply management on the table, which is very untimely for Harper heading into a campaign. Dismantling of supply management in dairy would devastate the Conservatives in rural Ontario, especially in the eastern part of the province.

3. The 'R' word

The first four months of 2015 have seen negative growth in Canada's GDP numbers. On Friday, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said Canada would have negative growth of 0.6 per cent in the second quarter. That would leave the Conservatives presiding over a recession going into a campaign before the GDP numbers can turn positive in the third quarter.

You might call this a technical recession, but you can be sure the media and others will just call it a recession, period. Economic stewardship is at the heart of the Conservative brand. This is a huge issue for them.

4. Alberta's election

Former Conservative premier Jim Prentice would never have called a provincial election on April 7 if he'd known Harper was about to call one himself. There would have been no election of Rachel Notley and the NDP, and no "Notley effect" for Tom Mulcair and the federal party, who would have been in the mid-20s by now rather than the low 30s.

5. AG's report on Senate spending

A May federal election would have been over weeks before the June release of the auditor general's report on Senate expenses, which produced a slew of negative headlines.

6. Del Mastro in chains

There would have been no images in late June of former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro being led away in handcuffs and shackles after his sentencing on unreported campaign spending back in 2008.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. But ironically, Harper's own fixed election law could prove to be a poisoned chalice.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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