Sunday, January 30, 2011

The coming federal election

It now appears certain that we will have a federal election this spring, likely in May. The Liberals have clearly signaled their intention to vote against the budget, and the Bloc has just set terms for its support the Tories won't be able swallow. The NDP, reflecting Jack Layton's predisposition, makes conciliatory gestures, but remains too distant from the Conservatives ideologically for a deal to be possible.

One timing consideration that no one seems to have noticed is the Supreme Court hearings on the federal proposal for a national securities regulator. They are scheduled to be held on April 13 and 14 in Ottawa. Not likely to be a big issue overall, but it is a sensitive matter in Quebec, so I am guessing that the election will not fall close to those dates. Mid-May looks like a good bet. Another option would be an early date.

The polls have been static for a long time. An election with voting statistics that replicated them would return the Conservatives to office with a minority administration with fewer seats than before, the Liberals would gain as many as ten seats while the NDP, at best, would hang on to what they have. The Bloc may pick up a few. However, preferences expressed by the public in surveys are weak and subject to change. The obstacles to a Conservative majority are formidable and haven't changed.

The Liberals right now look to be in better shape entering the electoral fray than they were under St├ęphane Dion in 2008. Michael Ignatieff does not have much in the way of political skills but they are arguably superior to Dion's. The party's infrastructure, supporting personnel and policy positioning do look stronger than 2008.

If the campaign were to be framed around corporate tax cuts, it could help offset the negative public assessment of Ignatieff. A poll out this week suggests just 21% of Canadians accept the government's position that such tax cuts are effective at creating jobs, while a 52% majority quite rightly reject this notion. And other pollsters agree that corporate tax cuts are unpopular. In the past this has been an NDP issue, but the Liberals could easily steal it. Voters are most likely to be pragmatic, and uninterested in historical positioning, if the issue takes off as the most important of the campaign.

It is the Liberals who have put out ads attacking the cuts:

Another issue that could hurt the government is the F-35 fighter purchase. Context matters here. The government wants to engage in deficit fighting. It isn't remembered well now, but the military took a big hit in Paul Martin's mid-nineties deficit fighting precisely because military spending has a very low priority with voters. A campaign that emphasized these two issues could work well for the Liberals.

Both issues ought to be strengths for the NDP but the Liberals have demonstrated great effectiveness over the years in stealing the social democrats' themes. The NDP has generally been trending at or slightly below their 2008 showing despite having a leader who is far more popular and respected than Mr. Ignatieff. Although currently stuck at long-term support levels, the party does have growth potential. How many realize the NDP is Canada's most popular second choice including in Quebec?(page 12). That potential, however, will remain unrealized unless the NDP finds some way to break through its traditional barriers.

The Liberals do remain in a perilous, fragile position. TC wrote a series on the long-term Liberal decline last year and recently attended a political science seminar where one knowledgeable participant offered a similar analysis. One threat to the Liberal Party comes from Conservative efforts to win over traditionally Liberal immigrant voters. Although the media overstates the Conservatives' actual success to date, holding power means the Conservatives can bestow local favours, a critical factor in the parish pump politics of ethnic voting. This is reinforced by the perception they will continue to govern. The catch for the Conservatives, as it was in the eighties with respect to wooing Quebec, is that they continue to be the repository for anti-immigrant sentiment in Canada. You can't represent both ends of a spectrum for long.

One factor that ought to give the Conservatives pause is what the atmospherics in Ottawa would be like if they come back with fewer seats, even if the losses are modest. In that circumstance they would look like a government beginning to decay, and deep rot would soon set in.