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Election speculation: a vote by November?

Meanwhile, Harper's law & order agenda looms

In June, the Commons saw a game of brinksmanship that almost brought Canadians to the polls. And while an agreement between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff to spend the summer studying ways to reform the Employment Insurance system, pretty much everyone agrees that this was just a delaying technique — a kind of election tantra, prolonging the foreplay before another trip to the polls, likely by November.

With a raft of 11th-hour tough-on-crime bills now tabled, the stakes are higher than before. Recent Conservative proposals include beefing up drug penalties, removing judicial discretion in adding convicts to the sex-offender and forcing internet service providers to install tracking and recording programs on their servers (see below).

By jostling to find the perfect election date, the crime legislation appears to be a collateral concern. With no political party mounting serious resistance to these bills — which are variously opposed by gay activists, prison rights groups, civil libertarians and advocates of sexual freedom — the longer the House sits, the more likely it is that some or all of these bills will become law.

So what happened?

“Canadians chose this minority Parliament just a few months ago,” says gay Liberal MP Scott Brison. “They want Members of Parliament and leaders from all parties to try to make it work. It’s very clear that Michael Ignatieff is genuinely trying to make this Parliament work for Canadians, and to address the substantive economic issues, and hold the government accountable for results on the stimulus package.”

Indeed, making Parliament work is the catchphrase of the day in Ottawa, and there is plenty of tough talk about it.

“It’s a good day for this system of Parliament,” Ignatieff said when he made the announcement of the working group. “We’ve tried to make it work, and I think we’re going to try to make it work and get good results for Canadians.”

That’s not the way the Conservatives frame it. They’re saying they not only made the Liberals back down, but they also made them give up their support for a national EI standard of 360 hours.

The NDP go further. Their House leader, Libby Davies, calls the deal the low-point of the spring sitting.

“I’m stunned that after all the huffing and puffing from the Liberal leader about what they were going to do in order to not have an election, they got a working group,” Davies says.

“It’s like uh, what? You got a what? I thought that was pretty low-level. Compared to what the NDP got when we had an opportunity like that in 2005 [in exchange for supporting Liberal leader Paul Martin] — we zoomed in and went to bat for people. I was the person who negotiated that — we got the $4.6 billion for housing, post-secondary education, transit, international development. I mean, we got real stuff for people. And they got a working group that maybe will do something, maybe?”

Indeed, rather than any substantive policy, Harper and Ignatieff appear to have worked out a date for a fall election.

The Liberal-Conservative deal includes a Parliamentary calendar that starts a week earlier in September and room for the Liberals to table a non-confidence vote two sitting days after the Conservatives table their next economic “report card” in the week of Sep 28.

If the government falls quickly, the sheaf of justice bills winding their way through Parliament are dead in the water. The longer the dance continues, the more likely it is that some of these bills will become law.

Having a fixed date for a confidence motion changes the electoral calculations in many respects. Ordinarily the government has the power to allocate opposition days. The government typically pushes these days to the end of the sitting in early December. That would guarantee an election call over the Christmas break, an unpalatable outcome for most voters.

This past spring they did the same thing, ensuring the opposition days were at the end of June, thus guaranteeing that an election would have been held the first week of August — again, a time that’s usually considered unpalatable to cottaging Canadians.

All of which sets the stage for September. So, does that guarantee a fall election?

Not necessarily, says Catherine Côté, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa. She says the biggest challenge will be convincing the public why an election is necessary.

“Normally people only want an election if they want real change or if they’re afraid of something,” she says. “They might want a change because they are sick and tired of something and they absolutely want to change it.”

“They will say it’s for politicians themselves to get elected,” Côté says, and says that part of the blame for that is the way the media covers the “horse race” rather than what the actual issues of the election might be. “If it’s too much horse race, people won’t get involved.”

And with a summer of stump speeches planned for both Ignatieff and Harper, one or two gaffes could greatly change the math for either of them.

“We’ll see in September if things change,” Côté says. “It’s possible if there are really a lot of people supporting Ignatieff, for example. Then people might think, ‘Okay, there is a possibility of a new government, I’m pro-Ignatieff, I want things to change — then I want an election.’ But if people aren’t too keen on Ignatieff, or if they’re not a real [push] for Ignatieff, then maybe people will keep quiet about it, and say ‘Okay, if it’s just to change one dollar for two fifty-cent [pieces], then no big progress.'”

However, Liberals may find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, with the Vancouver Olympics set to start Feb 12, 2010. The opposition is loathe to allow the Conservatives the opportunity to grandstand at the games, appearing on every podium and taking ownership of the marquee sports event.

“I’m certain that if given the opportunity, Mr Harper would exploit any opportunity for narrow partisan gain — that’s just him and his nature,” Brison says of the Olympics.

But while the politicians may be wary of this potential tactic, not everyone is convinced.

“I don’t know if it will have an impact,” says Côté. “People are not necessarily interested in the Olympics; it’s not the whole population.

“If they put too much [emphasis on] the Olympics, it’ll be worse for them,” Côté adds. “If you push too much, people will see it and they don’t like [that].”

But will Ignatieff have drummed up some momentum by September? That remains the biggest unknown now that all of the other elements are in place.

“My view is Canadians have soured on Mr Harper, and when milk goes sour, you can’t un-sour it,” Brison says. “Stephen Harper could win a gold medal at the Olympics and Canadians would still view him with a jaundiced eye.”

But it’s still months away — and three months is an eternity in politics.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Harper’s looming law & order agenda

Privacy & due process

Parts of this bill would allow police to fingerprint and photograph a person before charges are laid.
Bill: C-31
Status: First reading

More jailtime

This bill would manate jail time for some property crimes, taking away judicial discretion and crowding jails further.
Bill: C-42
Status: First reading

Victims rights

This bill would give victims a say in parole hearings, limiting how blind justice can be.
Bill: C-43
Status: First reading

Internet privacy

This bill would force internet service providers to track and store data about its users and sets the terms under which police would be able to access it.
Bill: C-46
Status: First reading

Investigative hearings

This bill resurrects sunsetted clauses of anti-terror legislation that lapsed without being used.
Bill: C-19
Status: Second reading

Sex offender registry

This bill would make inclusion on the national sex offender registry mandatory for those convicted of some crimes..
Bill: C-34
Status: Commons committee

War on drugs

This bill gives mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.
Bill: C-15
Status: Second Reading in the Senate

Longer sentences

This bill removes the ability of judges to award extra credit for time served in custody before trial.
Bill: C-25
Status: Senate committee