Election timing speculation: the Olympics wrinkle

At any political party gathering that I’ve ever covered (except leadership conventions), all not-for-attribution conversations tend to regress toward one of three questions:

1. Should we dump the leader?

2. When will the next election be?

3. Which suite will offer the highest quality of free snacks and drinks tonight?

Here at the Liberals’ biennial convention in Vancouver, the first subject is pretty much out of bounds, or at least premature, since Michael Ignatieff doesn’t formally get to drop the adjective “interim” from his title as leader until tomorrow.

The third subject may well be coming up, but the principles drilled into me by the nuns at journalism school prevent me from engaging in that sort of inquiry.

Which leaves the second topic. It’s less bloodthirsty than the first and less promising of immediate gratification than the third, but still as irresistible as it is unproductive.

So here’s what I’m hearing. Although buoyed by recent polls, the Liberals are in no rush to force an election, given the ambitious reorganization and technical upgrade the party has just undertaken. But how long can they afford to wait?

Obviously, this spring and summer are out. Even next fall, however, seems a bit too soon for national director Rocco Rossi’s efforts to catch up to the Conservatives to be sufficiently advanced to comfortably put the retooled Liberal machine to the ultimate test of a campaign.

Yet leaving the Tories in power until 2010 is risky and awkward for two reasons.

Firstly, the economy might be well on the way to recovering by then. Who knows? But if Stephen Harper is allowed to ride out this recession, rather than wear it, the Liberals will have failed to exploit a classic route back to power.

Secondly, the Winter Olympics here in Vancouver, which run Feb. 12-28, 2010, followed by the Paralympics, March 12-21, 2010, create an unusual impediment to the normal politicking that surrounds minority government budgets and election timing.

The Vancouver Games will fall right in the middle of what is typically federal budget season. Forcing an election over next year’s budget, then, or even threatening to force one, will likely be viewed as far out of bounds.

That would give the Conservatives a great deal more freedom than a minority government—especially one than by next year will be looking rather long in the tooth— could normally hope to enjoy.

Would the Liberals feel forced to support a second budget in a row, despite the absolute political necessity of portraying the Harper government as having failed to adequately manage the economy in hard times.

Hard to imagine, I know, that anybody can concentrate on this sort of idle speculation when the big Stéphane Dion tribute is coming up later this evening.

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