Federal election fever stalks the land

But it could end quickly if Dion's fortunes begin to fail

Élections fédérales du 14 octobre 2008

It's a classic. Nothing gives off the sweet smell of a coming election more than a government announcing billions of tax dollars for roads, bridges and public transit.
Coupled with Stéphane Dion's frequent hints that he could finally bring down the Harper government this fall, a sure sign that the prime minister is gearing up an election was yesterday's announcement of $3 billion of federal money for Ontario's infrastructure programs.
But with Liberals neck-and-neck with the Tories in the polls, even running ahead in Ontario, it remains to be seen whether those billions will help the Conservatives much in that vote-rich province.
More money for infrastructure is always welcomed by any provincial government, but it might not be enough to heal the increasingly tense relationship between Stephen Harper and Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty - whose brother happens to be Dion's environment critic.
Taking nothing for granted, the federal ministers of transport and finance who made yesterday's announcement also spread the news of the official finalization of nearly $4 billion for Quebec's own infrastructure programs.
Given that the Tories have lost ground to the Bloc Québécois since the surprise election of 10 Conservative MPs in Quebec, as well as to the increasingly popular NDP and even to the Liberals, we can expect a myriad of federal ministers to be making similar announcements in the next few weeks.
Dion has clearly joined the pro-election camp after propping up this government since becoming the Liberal leader. On Wednesday, in the middle of his summer "Green Shift" cross-Canada tour, Dion said Canadians were starting to show "more interest and more appetite for an election."
By positioning the Liberal Party as even more progressive than Jack Layton's NDP, Dion's overall message is reminiscent of Paul Martin's during the last federal election. But there's a huge difference between Dion's circumstances and Martin's .
When Martin tried to attack Harper's neo-con vision, Canadians hadn't actually experienced it yet. The Liberals were in power, not the Tories. But today, voters have had 21/2 years of Harper implementing his vision.
Another difference between the election of January 2006 and the next one is in Liberal leaders. Paul Martin wasn't only "Mr. Dithers," he was also doomed by the sponsorship scandal - Gomery Commission or not.
While Dion had a catastrophic first year as Liberal leader, he has been making a slow and determined recovery on the heels on his Green Shift policy on the environment. Given the media ridicule he was getting only a year ago, that alone is a remarkable achievement. The Liberal Party also benefitted from Harper's mishandling of a number of issues - the Couillard-Bernier affair is the most spectacular example. The Grits might now have a real fighting chance against the Tories in Ontario.
As for Quebec, Dion remains devoid of any comprehensive policy toward Quebec, despite a June 27 CROP-La Presse poll that put the Liberals at 21 per cent - a six-point surge in one year.
Flanked by the ultra-federalist Justin Trudeau, who is known to make statements that get under the skin of many francophones, Dion desperately needs a more open policy for Quebec, not just a green one, if he wants to make any headway here.
If Dion wants to put more wind in his sails, he simply cannot afford to repeat last year's disaster in the Outremont by-election in which the Liberals lost one of their safest seats to the NDP's Thomas Mulcair.
There's no doubt that if Dion's candidate, former astronaut Marc Garneau, loses the Liberal fortress in the by-election in Westmount-Ville-Marie, the sweet smell of a general election will vanish, to be replaced by new criticisms of Dion's leadership.

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