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Easy ride for Harper most unlikely

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The chattering class in Ottawa is talking about the Prairies becoming a unified region in terms of political thinking.

The story goes like this:

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises in the House of Commons today he will face three opposition parties with no permanent leaders -- a situation that is unprecedented.

The Liberals and Bloc Québécois lost their leaders after they were pummelled in the May federal election. NDP leader Jack Layton died of cancer last month.

Harper, the chattering class notes, got his majority in May largely because he swept the Prairies and took many seats in Ontario. This may mean the Prairies are voting one way -- and that way is Tory.

In addition, elections in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are coming up. The Saskatchewan Party (that province's conservative party) is likely to win re-election. And Tories may breakthrough in Manitoba and Ontario. Those wins would give Harper a large patch of friendly territory, it's argued.

I'm not sure the prime minister should start counting his provinces. A trip my family and I took through the Prairies this summer revealed the region still has different interests, values and political ideas. Manitoba is not like Alberta, whatever parties control their legislatures.

Here's a thumbnail sketch of politics in the Ontario and the western provinces, and the dates at which key events are taking place.

Oct. 4 -- Manitoba is seeing a close fight between NDP Premier Greg Selinger and Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen. Both leaders are staying away from some big issues: How exactly do you intend to balance the budget; how are you going to bump up Manitoba's middling growth rate and raise the province's status from a have-not province?

Oct. 6 -- Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose popularity continues to baffle me, is in a tough fight with Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. McGuinty is bothered by a big deficit and an expensive green policy that doesn't seem to have worked. Hudak says the Liberals, without warning, will raise taxes if they win the next election. The claim has some credibility because the Liberals have done just that after an election.

Recent polls show that, despite McGuinty's problems, the Ontario election is up for grabs -- partly because the premier has adopted a Harper campaign selling point: This is no time to hand the reins to someone untested.

Nov. 7 -- Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall probably is going to cruise to another victory. But this might not be an unmitigated joy for Harper. Wall showed in the fight over BHP Billiton's proposed takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan that he can stand up to the prime minister. Wall said potash was a "strategic resource" and foreigners should not control it. Ottawa likes to say it is "open for business," but it backed down and rejected the bid.

BHP has announced plans to expand in Saskatchewan, which shows, Wall says, that we can reject takeovers and still maintain our reputation as a good place to do business.

Alberta is not voting this year. But two dates are of interest to Harper. Last week, a lot of old Reformers celebrated the forming of the party 25 years ago. Much of Reform's organizational work was done by Preston Manning, 69, who is now president of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Ted Byfield, 83, who helped publicize the party, is now working on Vol. 11 of his 12-volume history of Christianity.

Harper, who worked for the new party, is the only MP to have run for Reform in 1988.

Harper will also be interested in who in October becomes the new leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, which has been in power for 40 years. Ted Morton, a good Harper friend and hardy right-winger, is up against Gary Mar, a former provincial minister and Alberta representative in Washington, who is more of a moderate.

The Wildrose Alliance Party of Alberta was going to become the new voice of conservatives. But recently its leader, Danielle Smith, has come under attack for firing key staff, going over-budget and being inexperienced.

British Columbia was supposed to have an election this fall, but Liberal Premier Christy Clark has decided voters won't go to the polls before May 2013, the fixed election date. In the August referendum defeat of the HST, voters in more than half the Liberal-held seats voted against the HST.

As I think you can see, the Manitoba and Ontario elections are not slam dunks for the Conservatives. In the other Western provinces, politics involves parties that have not always bowed down to federal Conservatives.

In the House of Commons, the opposition parties may be without permanent leaders. But the parties are going to be raring to show their stuff -- particularly the NDPers who have a leadership convention in March.

No, Harper is unlikely to get an easy ride, but Canadian prime ministers rarely do.

Tom Ford is managing editor of the Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2011 A10

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