It’s the political silly season as MPs travel around on the barbeque circuit, so we have to take with a grain of salt the latest election rumours. The Liberals, we’re told, are eyeing a November vote.
Leaving aside the presumption that the other opposition parties will join in to vote against the Conservative government in a confidence matter, the big question remains, ‘why?’ That is, why do we need an election? And why would people vote for Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who has so far failed to make a mark on the public psyche?
Certainly Ignatieff is no Stéphane Dion, and he projects an image that is a big improvement over Stephen Harper, but that’s not enough just yet to risk an election.
Polls have consistently shown the two major parties running neck and neck, with neither seen as capable of winning a majority.
Harper has been underwhelming, but has done little to really tick off Canadians, who, of course, vote out the bums rather than voting in a new group.
Therein lies the rub for the Liberals, says David Docherty, a political science professor and dean of arts at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.
“People may be looking for a way to vote out the Conservatives, but they don’t have anywhere to go. Ignatieff hasn’t struck enough chords for people to vote him in.”
In other words, Ignatieff and his party haven’t grabbed the public’s attention. Nor have they made a compelling case for an election to toss out the bums now at the helm in Ottawa.
Moreover, nobody seems particularly interested in an election.
“Both the Liberals and the Conservatives are gearing up for an election that the public doesn’t really want,” he says.
The Liberals have been making periodic noises about an election, going back to the coalition averted by Harper’s hail-Mary prorogation of Parliament. The Conservative mishandling of the recession – Harper’s claims last year the worst was over, and a host of other missteps – lent a small window opportunity.
While many Canadians became excited at the prospect of removing Harper, there were lingering reservations about the coalition (based, in part, on Harper and his followers misleading Canadians about the nature of our parliamentary democracy). Ignatieff appeared wary of the long-term impacts of a decision that might have brought short-term gain: his ascension to the prime minister’s job.
That moment having passed, today calls for tweaking Employment Insurance just aren’t stoking election fever.
Nobody’s mad enough just now to want a vote. And Ignatieff hasn’t unveiled policies to differentiate the two parties, nor to galvanize voters in favour of a new direction.
Harper is seen as weak. Not a leader, his skills are said to be managerial, a role he’s fumbled continually. Still, none of the other party leaders has been able to step up to fill what is essentially a vacuum.
Harper got a free ride when Dion was around. Ignatieff showed himself to be a completely different kind of leader in the immediate wake of the leadership change, but has since tapered off.
Of the other parties holding the balance of power, says Docherty, leadership also remains an issue.
The Bloc Quebecois can be counted on to vote against the Conservatives, but outside of Quebec its policies are irrelevant. For Jack Layton, who also prefers to vote against the government, waffling between seeking power and trying to influence policy has left him looking weak.
Recognizing its limited appeal, the NDP has typically sought to influence the government, especially in minority situations. That’s the position Layton could have staked out when Paul Martin had a minority government, he says. Instead, Layton paved the way for a Conservative minority, one from which he was shut out.
Having just come through a convention where the status quo was enshrined, Layton and the NDP – not the DP – will remain in the same position on the outside looking in.
Clearly it’s incumbent on Ignatieff to offer up a vision that distinguishes the party from the Conservatives, and gives Canadians a reason to care about the prospect of yet another election.
The key to that, ironically, is to stress that we don’t need an election, says Docherty. The catch is adding some ifs to the equation: if the government meets Canadians’ wishes on Employment Insurance reform, health care and the environment, for instance.
Set the tone of the debate by staking out a place in line with the public’s desires on these topics – Harper is out of sync, even if his desire to hold onto power has him toeing the line – then wait to see if the Conservatives fail to comply.
“If the government goes too far, then he can say ‘we can pull the plug on this government,’” says Docherty of Ignatieff.