The battle for PM is closer than we think

Paul Wells kicks off speculation on the 2015 federal election

<p>Parliament Hill and the Library of Canada in the fall in Ottawa, Ont. on Oct, 18, 2012. Lars Hagberg/CP</p>

Parliament Hill and the Library of Canada in the fall in Ottawa, Ont. on Oct, 18, 2012. Lars Hagberg/CP

Lars Hagberg/CP
Lars Hagberg/CP

Your Members of Parliament have fled Ottawa, snarling and barely coherent, to take the first flight back to their ridings. The mood in the capital is already the better for it. There’s a jazz festival on and Al Pacino was, inexplicably, at the National Arts Centre for an onstage interview. I keep hearing that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been spotted around town, just out strolling.

When Parliament resumes in, oh, maybe September, we will be only 13 months from an election. Close enough to speculate about who’ll win it. I say we start right now.

First, about that election date. By law, it is fixed at Oct. 19, 2015. But the “law” that “fixes” election dates has existed for seven years. We have since had two elections at dates that weren’t the ones “fixed” in “law.” So, as laws go, this one is flexible. Some have suggested that the Prime Minister could call an election well before Oct. 19, 2015. Tom Mulcair, the NDP leader, has been among them. And, of course, the best way to ensure Harper will force an early election is to plan on the assumption he won’t.

But the Conservatives have good reason to wait. It is taking time for them to recover from the mess that resulted when Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright wrote a personal cheque to cover Sen. Mike Duffy’s expenses. More time would help. It is taking time for the bloom to come off Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s public-opinion rose. More time might help.

The best reason to let the election happen on the date “fixed” in “law” is that this would give the Conservatives all of next summer to campaign, without worrying about spending limits imposed by Elections Canada. The Conservatives’ fundraising advantage over the other parties isn’t as commanding as it used to be, but they still have an edge and, outside of an election writ period, they can outspend the opposition at will.

“We’re going in October [2015],” a senior Conservative politician told me the other day. “Look at me. No hand signals. No body language. We’re going in October.”

Whenever they do go into an election, it seems the Conservatives are likely to go with Harper as their leader. A year ago, when the House of Commons rose for the summer of 2013, the Wright-Duffy scandal was in full, fetid bloom, and eight columnists predicted Harper would quit as Conservative leader by Labour Day. He didn’t. This year, none of the columnists has climbed back out on the same limb.

The Conservatives are in objectively better shape now. Wright is cleared of wrongdoing and heading back to gainful employment. The government’s next budget will be balanced for the first time since 2008. Sometimes the best way to count the Conservatives’ fortunes is to look at the cow pies they’ve avoided. A few months ago, there was no way Employment Minister Jason Kenney could cut deals with every province to create a new Canada Jobs Grant. Then he cut deals with every province.

Of course, it hasn’t all been rosy, and most of the Conservatives’ wounds have been self-inflicted. Picking a fight with Beverley McLachlin, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, turned out to be a bad idea. Nobody believed a 70-year-old woman who had sat on the top court since Harper was 30 would have launched an ideological war against him, so when an ideological war broke out, it was pretty clear where it came from.

At Harper’s last big Ontario campaign event in 2006, he appeared with Bill Davis, the ancient and deeply non-ideological former Ontario premier who won Ontario with 44 per cent of the popular vote in 1981, far more than the 38.6 per cent Kathleen Wynne’s provincial Liberals won in June. Harper has won by reaching out to moderates, not by working himself into a truly bizarre snit about them. If he remembers that, he’ll win again. And if not, not.

I continue to think Tom Mulcair had an excellent spring, even though it was dominated by the spectacle of the other parties teaming up to discipline the NDP over dodgy partisan mailouts. Nobody understands the rules around dodgy partisan mailouts. In any dispute between two parties over the rules that govern parliamentary procedure, voters will, rightly, assume each side would do what the other did if their situations were reversed. But, while he was fighting with the Conservatives and Liberals, Mulcair made it clear he will be fierce and unapologetic in defending his party’s prerogatives. He’s continued former leader Jack Layton’s work moderating the NDP’s economic message without losing the support of the party’s old guard. I think you’d be crazy to dismiss the NDP’s chances in 2015.

Which brings us to Trudeau. In the running monthly average of polls, Trudeau’s Liberals have been ahead of the other parties 14 months in a row. One day, we will know how much money the Conservatives have spent on many consecutive months of radio and online ads against the Liberals. It will be a large number. Despite the spending and Trudeau’s monthly gaffes, the Liberals remain in the lead. Sometimes “time for a change” creates its own logic, or substitutes for logic.

I offer no predictions. The battle of 2015 will sort it all out. But that confrontation is closer than it looks. MPs should relax this summer. It will be their last rest of any length before Canadians decide their fate.