When you sniff the wind in Ottawa these days you smell more than just the effluence from the combination of too many politicians in one place and the paper factory out on the Ottawa River. A nose made keen after years of ferreting out different scents on the wind will tell you that it's the smell of a snap election call in the offing.
I know what you're thinking: didn't we just have one less than a year ago? Who'd be stupid enough to think they could get away with going to the polls without getting hammered by the public? Change that to who's arrogant enough to believe they could win, and perhaps win big, and maybe you'll start to come up with an answer.
I know, didn't I just solve the case of the disappearing opposition by saying the direct opposite – that neither the Liberals, The New Democratic Party (NDP), nor the Bloc Quebecois have any interest in calling an election? True enough, but if the Conservative Party of Canada wants to go to the polls badly enough, they can manipulate a situation to make it happen.
All they have to do is introduce some piece of legislation repugnant enough to enough opposition members that they can't help but go down in defeat in the house. Not only do they get the election call they desire, but they can also blame it on the opposition parties in an attempt to garner support.
Of course, this involves a whole lot of delicate political maneuvering in the months leading up to the vote in the House of Parliament in an effort to establish you are perfectly content with your minority government. But sadly,you just aren't being allowed to run the country the way you want. Carrying this off requires a deft touch, a certain degree of subtlety, and a media campaign putting the right spin on events.
This type of ploy can come back and haunt you like last night's five alarm chili and five-beer dinner – feeling burnt at both ends and full of regrets at your own stupidity. It takes a certain amount of arrogance to think you can tackle that kind of meal without suffering the consequences, and if you have the right constitution, you'll be okay. But if you've miscalculated by even an nth of a degree, you'll just be adding it to thelist of things "I should have known better than to attempt."
Now all political parties like power. If they didn't, they wouldn't exist, no matter how high minded and moral any of them pretend to be. Once a politician and a party get a taste of power, they can become as easily addicted as any other wide-eyed junkie out there. Power is like any other drug, you keep needing more of it to get a jolt that gets you off.
Stephen Harper and his boys have the needle in their arms now and are looking to set up a permanent intravenous drip for at least four more years, if they can. They've been walking around Ottawa since they moved here like they've been anticipating a long-term stay. Forbidding press open access to caucus members and Cabinet Ministers, not working with the opposition, but counting on their fear of an early election to push anything they want through parliament, and just generally acting like roosters in a hen house who've just been told they're all his to play with.
They haven't exactly endeared themselves to the Canadian public, either, by saying the reason the people were against expanding Canada's role in Afghanistan was because they couldn't understand the reasons behind our armies being there in the first place. Now there's nothing people like better than being called stupid and ignorant on a repeated basis. They don't have to know why soldiers are somewhere to know they don't want them coming home dead.
When two weeks later, they started coming home dead at a rate Canada hasn't seen since at least the Korean War, if not World War II, instead of recognizing the fact as a problem, the Conservative government tried to play down the deaths as much as possible. First, they tried to cancel the practice started under the previous government of honouring servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan by lowering the flags on Parliament hill to half-mast, and having a ceremony for the caskets when they arrived back on Canadian soil. Then they banned the press from photographing the return of the soldiers, who, in the lingo of the government, had paid the "ultimate price" by committing the "supreme sacrifice."
It took protests by the dead soldiers' parents and widespread negative reaction from most people across Canada for the Conservatives to make the ultimate price worth more than a plugged nickel, but the damage was done. Something Stephen Harper hasn't seemed to figure out yet is that Canadians don't talk like that. You don't often hear people say things like "ultimate price" or "supreme sacrifice" when they're having their coffee and donuts down at Tim Horton's.
Sure, it's pretty standard political hyperbole south of the border, but up here it just doesn't fly very well. It makes it sound like you're imitating another politician. The Conservative Party of Canada has always been out of touch with the majority of Canadians' opinion on foreign policy, but they have this knack for ignoring this disparity.
They say they are mending fences with the folks in Washington, but a lot of people are wondering how much of a shafting from a fence post they're willing to take. Take the settlement reached in the soft wood lumber dispute. At first they were heralding it as a miracle, but when the lumber industry across the country and the opposition started protesting, they fell back on saying it's better than nothing.
Of course, just to confuse the issue more, another court has found in favour of the Canadians' argument the Americans had no right to collect any tariffs. Which would, of course, lead the Canadian industry to wondering why they shouldn’t be allowed to recoup all the tariffs paid, instead of leaving a billion dollars in American coffers as the new deal allows.
If the courts and the adjudicators keep finding in Canada's favour then nothing is better than the deal that's been negotiated, because nothing will give them back all the tariff money, or open the borders completely. It might even be actual free trade.
Going into an election looking like you're selling out one of the biggest industries in Canada probably isn't the best of ideas, but the Conservative party is threatening to make the vote over their new deal a vote of confidence. That means if they lose the vote, an election has to be called.
They're entering into this game of chicken because they don't think the opposition will want an election called and be forced to support the deal. With the Liberal party not having a leader yet to replace former Prime Minister Paul Martin, and their convention not slated until next December, it looks more like they're playing with dice loaded in their favour.
But there's also the possibility, as I said earlier, that they want an election for that very reason – the Liberal party doesn't have a leader. If an election were called in September, it would mean that the Liberals would have to have their convention in the middle of an election campaign.
Now obviously, the Conservatives hope it will be a nasty affair,l splitting the Liberal party and reducing their effectiveness to run a campaign. But this is where the backfire we talked about earlier could really kick in. Usually, when a party has a leadership convention, they get a healthy bounce in the polls; people are more interested in them, and they have the look and sound of a winner.
If the Liberals come out of a leadership convention with any semblance of party unity and a healthy bounce in the polls with only three weeks left in the election, they could easily waltz home with a majority government and return the Conservatives to their backwater.
Right now, the Conservatives are thirty seats short of a majority, and most of those are in places they really have no hope of gaining. As long as they keep pushing their social conservative agenda, they will never get seats in the urban centres of Canada, which is the only place left for them to win seats.
For them to hold onto their minority government and have even a glimmer of hope of defeating the Liberals, they will have to convince the people of Canada their foreign policy is the right choice. Aside from their stance on social issues, like same-sex marriage, reproductive choice, and day care, it is the only area where the two parties differ in any significant way.
Since that division has already been played out in the polls, the only real decision facing Canadians is whether they want to continue on the path Stephen Harper has begun and take a harder, more American line in foreign policy, or be more concerned with impartiality and peacekeeping.
In fact, the Conservatives are so sure of this being a major issue, they have sent out a fundraising letter to all party members asking them for a contribution of $75-150 to show their support for the Conservative party's stand on Israel and the invasion of Lebanon.
In the letter, they talk about the moral stand taken by Mr. Harper and his unequivocal support for Israel (or the Jewish vote in the affluent suburbs surrounding Toronto), while heaping scorn on the policies of the previous government by calling it weak and indecisive. Considering the majority of Canada had supported the previous two governments' equivocation when it came to matters of foreign policy, it remains to be seen whether they will use such strong language when addressing all Canadians.
The letter is also setting the groundwork for laying the blame of an election call at the feet of the opposition. It warns the party faithful to be prepared because the opposition is looking for any excuse to call a snap election. In other words, the Conservatives are going to be forcing the issue come the fall by presenting legislation none of the opposition parties are going to be able to stomach.
As the Conservatives have already vowed to bring the softwood lumber deal to parliament and introduce it as a motion of confidence, even the blindest of pigs can see where this acorn lies. They are counting on losing this vote in the fall so they can be "forced" to call a snap election. They are going to be the victims of the nefarious opposition who are standing in the way of what's good for the country, even if the country doesn't know it.
In the private investigation business, you have to learn to smell which way the wind's blowing if you don't want to get knocked off your feet. Politics is a lot like that, except the winds seem to shift direction a lot quicker than in other professions. If an election happens this fall, it will be a question of whether the Conservatives have guessed the direction of the prevailing wind with any degree of accuracy.
If they haven't, it becomes a question of to what degree they're buffeted. Will they lose their footing altogether and be blown off the table (unlikely) or will they be knocked back enough for the Liberals to form a majority government (perhaps)? Or will it end up being another minority government, this time Liberal with the NDP holding the balance of power (more than likely)?
Perhaps the Conservatives don't see it that way, and even if they did, they would be the last to admit it. Forcing the issue of an election so early in their mandate seems like a mighty big risk to take, unless they see it as their only real chance to strike. The economy is doing well, they can still try to portray themselves as the party of patriots and the healer of relations with the Americans, and the Liberals are without a leader.
A lot can happen in a few months to change the political landscape of the world. Who knows what can happen? The economy could tank, Canadian casualties in Afghanistan could continue to escalate, and any number of events beyond anyone's control can change. If we do get a fall election, don't be surprised if it gets ugly fast.
I think it's time to put the "Gone Fishing" sign up on the office door and leave town for a while. Anyone wants me, I'll be checking in for my messages. Ottawa's smelly enough in the summer without the stink of a forthcoming election choking me.