Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Pros and cons of calling an election now

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So, you're Prime Minister Stephen Harper and you're trying to decide whether to call an election this fall. What are the potential benefits from going now? What are the risks? Below, find a brief checklist of the issues you'll need to consider before dropping the writ.PEOPLE HATE ELECTIONS and HATE THE PEOPLE WHO CALL THEM EVEN MOREThis is a common refrain when everyone knows there's an election coming and can't stop it. Generally speaking, voters don't like elections and are cynical about the reasons why politicians call them. Especially if those elections are called too early, or particularly late in a mandate. Parliamentary governments in this country have five years before they must call an election. Around four years is considered good form, especially for those governments that expect to be re-elected. Less than three years is a bit of uncharted territory, and thus a bit more of a risk. Those who cite that risk most often reference the downfall of Ontario Premier David Peterson, who despite having a healthy majority government, decided to call a snap election in mid 1990. He was trounced by the NDP, and many believe it was the snap writ that did him in. In fact, Peterson had accumulated a lot of baggage (Meech Lake, Patti Starr) and the snap election might just have been the straw that broke the camel's back.Will voters punish Harper for calling an election so soon after the last one? Not likely on that one issue alone. Once a campaign starts, people focus on the campaign, not the way it was called.NOT KEEPING HIS PROMISE TO HOLD ELECTIONS EVERY FOUR YEARS WILL BACKFIRE ON HARPERNot likely, although the fact that some voters will be upset about this aspect of the coming election speaks volumes about the idiocy of fixed election dates. Harper is preparing, news reports tell us, to explain that his fixed election date law did not apply to minority governments. It can only apply to majorities, which are under no threat of a vote of non-confidence.This makes sense to me, but the fact he has to justify a decision to dissolve this minority parliament demonstrates (IMHO) the fallacy of laws like this. It's always been part of a political tradition to allow the party in power to determine the schedule of elections. They do this knowing that making the wrong decision (right, Peterson?) could cost them dearly. There is nothing more inherently democratic about fixed election dates. The worst part for the Conservatives is that now they have to defend something that makes complete, practical sense. No fixed date law could eliminate the right of opposition parties to bring down a minority parliament.Will Harper's inability to keep his fixed date promise backfire? I have the sense there are just enough people out there who don't understand the silliness of a law fixing election dates, and the limits on that law, to make some trouble for the Conservatives.VOTERS LIKE MINORITIES AND WILL PUNISH THE TORIES FOR DISSOLVING THIS PARLIAMENTPolls tell us that voters do, generally, like minorities. But as is the case with snap elections, I do not have the sense that voters would disregard a campaign and the issues it raises and make up their mind simply because Harper dissolved the minority parliament. Polls also tell us that barring a seismic shock to the political economy, there is a very good likelihood there will be another minority parliament after this election. Some may find the prospect of an election in this scenario to be a waste of time. Somehow, however, we manage to buckle under and enjoy the battle, regardless of the outcome.Should Harper fear ending the minority? It's not the biggest hurdle he will face on the campaign trail. He should be careful, however, to be too dismissive of what the current parliament has achieved and what a future minority would mean to the nation. If he disses minorities, he might be cast as too power hungry for his own good.HARPER SHOULD CALL AN ELECTION NOW TO AVOID HAVING TO SEEK RE-ELECTION NEXT YEAR WHEN THE ECONOMY REALLY SUCKSThis is probably one of the more compelling reasons to go now. Canada has staved off formal recession despite a free fall in the U.S. economy. But rough waters in the economies of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec are palpable, and there is a very real possibility the economy, and government coffers, will look a whole lot less rosy 12 months from now. Government revenue will go down, no doubt, and that's going to make the Harper government look like it doesn't know what it's doing. It may even cause some to re-think the logic of the two-point cut to the GST, especially if there is a deficit posted next year. In fact, there is no reason to believe the Tories will have much wiggle room to deliver a pre-election budget full of goodies to win votes. It's looking like a lean, mean budget year ahead.Should Harper fear economic storm clouds on the horizon? He should, and likely does. Should he go now before things get too bad? It might be the best reason of all to call an election now.ALL THE TORIES NEED TO DO IS PUT LIBERAL LEADER STEPHANE DION ON A NATIONAL CAMPAIGN STAGE, AND THE NATION WILL TURN THEIR BACKS ON THE GRITS.Many Liberals I talk to are concerned about what will happen to Dion in the harsh glare of a federal campaign. The Grits are holding firm in opinion polls, but everyone knows once an election is called, the daily exposure can either make or break a candidate. Lacking in any communication skills or charisma, Dion would have to run a nearly flawless campaign to hold steady with Harper. The problem is Liberals claim he has isolated himself from advisors who he will need to navigate a federal campaign. There are also concerns he is simply not prepared to helm a campaign, although he will not admit it.Harper is no doubt banking on the fact Dion will wilt and run a bad campaign. He will need both of these shortfalls to convince voters to ignore their own trepidation about Tory policies and performance in government. Harper has accumulated a remarkable amount of baggage (In-and-out election financing, Schreiber-Mulroney and Cadman scandals aside) and done little to find policies that reach non-traditional constituencies. Across the country, the Tories appear to have lost ground to the Liberals in Ontario and Quebec, which makes the challenge of achieving a majority seem all the more remote.Can Harper bank on a Liberal collapse? The table seems set for the Grits to stumble, but it's unclear whether that is enough to save the Tories from their own shortcomings.There you have it - a list of the major issues to be considered before calling an election. So, do you pull the trigger or not?-30-

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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