As Stephen Harper's government enters its 33rd month of life on the calendar, the Prime Minister finds himself painted into a corner -- and let no one say he did not wield the brush and apply every loving stroke with his own hand. After a tenure already twice as long as the average life span of a minority Parliament, he appears determined to ask the Governor-General to call an election.
Few can be convinced that the House of Commons is as "dysfunctional" as he claims; this, at any rate, is his excuse for abandoning the idea of a fixed election date next year. The Post's Don Martin did an excellent job yesterday of demonstrating that this minority government's legislative record compares favourably with that of recent majorities, and anyway, many of us are perfectly content with a state of federal gridlock that thwarts the most extreme ambitions of all parties.
Now Mr. Harper has admitted that he does not expect to attain a majority in the next election, anyway -- a confession that is likely to frustrate those who consider the whole exercise a waste of cash. Does it make any sense, they will ask, for a prime minister to venture upon an election he cannot hope to win outright? Can he have sound, non-selfish reasons for doing so? Purely as a means of furthering the debate -- for it seems we will probably not have long to discuss the matter -- we are willing to put forward the few we can think of:
1 and 2 David Emerson and Michael Fortier. As other Cabinet ministers have blown up around the Prime Minister, his two most controversial picks have justified Mr. Harper's confidence in their basic competence. But throughout the life of his government he has been pursued by the black clouds of original sin they brought with them:Mr. Emerson was elected as a Liberal, and Mr. Fortier, whisked into the Senate in the name of geographic expediency, has not yet been elected by anyone at all. Considering how much his enemies have made of their irregular status, the Prime Minister is surely entitled to use an election as a means of forcing the issue one way or another. (Fortier has his eye on a Quebec seat; Emerson has not yet declared his intentions, but may drop out of federal politics altogether.)
3 The strength of the governing party is not the only relevant consideration involved in judging the legitimacy of a particular House of Commons composition. Canadians are not just entitled to vote for an opposition member: They are entitled to an opposition member of their choice. Even if overall Conservative strength ends up unchanged, the polls occasionally offer some hope that the Bloc Quebecois may give up ground, which federalists of all stripes ought to favour in principle. And surely Green Party supporters should be grateful for their big chance to smuggle leader Elizabeth May into Parliament under Stephane Dion's overcoat at long last.
4 If we are going to have another minority Conservative government (opposition supporters can't really argue against an early election on the basis that they might win it), we might as well have one that has access to the best available ministerial and secretarial timber. Before the last election, outstanding Conservatives in private life could not be sure that Stephen Harper was a capable campaigner worth suspending a career for. Having exceeded all expectations, he could hardly be blamed for wanting to shake things up and see what surfaces in a new caucus.
5 A closely related point is the increasing difficulty Harper has had in meeting the geographical specifications of Cabinetmaking. Too much of the intellectual strength and experience of the current Conservative caucus is located in Alberta and B. C.; the Conservatives can only lose ground in Alberta, and B. C.'s electoral map is volatile, but compensating Conservative gains elsewhere would be better for the country (given the premise of a likely Conservative victory) and would make life easier, in a desirable way, for Harper.
6 If there is a point six, it must come under the vague heading of "general democratic principles." Since when was frequent consultation of the country a luxury and a nuisance? And when did we agree to leave the setting of an election date in the hands of pollsters? No one really knows what the outcome of the election will be: What's certain is that the Prime Minister is not taking advantage of any obvious transitory scandal or outrage in the ranks of the opposition. Although the Liberals are cash-poor, they have been given more time than they could have expected to prepare for an election. The public has been given time to digest and debate the details of Stephane Dion's Green Shift plan.
Under the circumstances, "Why wait?" may be at least as fair a question as "Why now?"