Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

♪ ♪ It’s now or never ♪ ♪

The tension is incredible. Even from across the big salty pond, I can hear the soundtrack to Canada’s Election-That-Might-Be ringing in my ears like so many high-strung violins.

Lots of things to watch between now and tomorrow morning. Much attention focusses on Jack Layton, though I find it unfair that, simply because he didn’t choose to nail the NDP’s flag to the mast before the budget was even produced, the media now portrays him as ultimately responsible as to whether or not the writ is dropped. Conservative obstinance? Liberal ambition? These haven’t contributed as much to the development of a 2011 election as NDP budget considerations?

Like it or not, the optics have conspired to put the NDP in the hot seat. Whatever the details of the budget, their main consideration has to be: Is now a good time for an election? And if not now, when?

It’s incredibly hard to read. On the one hand, there appears to be a perfect storm of scandal and abuse, whirling the narrative out of Conservative control. Contempt is a big word, and CPC complaints that the Commons committee was stacked with Opposition members only calls further attention to a democratic fact: the Opposition is the majority.

Couple the ethical transgressions and the abuse of power characterisations with a seat-of-the-pants economic plan (how on earth the “fiscal conservative” and “prudent economic manager” labels stick to Harper is head-slapping stuff. Is it simply because he speaks in calm monotones? Is it the glasses?), and one would think the Conservatives are in about the most dangerous electoral territory they’ve been in since coming to power.

On the other hand – the Cons continue to defy gravity, despite everything. None of their ethical or economic disasters have produced a significant quotient of outrage outside Official Ottawa. It leads some pundits to opine that Canadians mustn’t be paying attention to politics if Conservative support can possibly rise under these circumstances. I can’t help but think along Rick Mercer’s lines: it’s not that Canadians aren’t paying attention – it’s that nothing surprises us anymore:

Apparently our opinion of politics and the people who practice the art is now so low that no matter what the behaviour we’re no longer surprised. It’s like going to a family wedding. Why bother getting upset because uncle Jerry has too much to drink and makes a holy show of himself out on the dance floor? It’s uncle Jerry, that’s what he does.

And so, if Harper abuses that cynicism, he does not necessarily do so at his peril. Infuriating as it may be.

Where does that leave decisions on whether to provoke and election, or not to? Clearly, Harper’s comfortable poll position must be a source of infinite frustration for the Opposition parties. But there are three convictions that stand out to me:

1) These circumstances may be as good as they get. Why wait for even more scandals to amass, while running the real risk that the existing scandals will then have time to fade into the abyss of forgotten yesterdays?

2) The cut and thrust of a campaign may well render the whole of the last year’s polling obsolete as parties and their policies get serious attention. Ignatieff may be who he is, and his leadership indices are not enviable, but he’ll draw a sharp contrast with Harper on the campaign trail, as will Layton (and, as an aside, LPC/NDP vote-splitting is not a new thing, and an election later rather than now doesn’t diminish that age-old danger, unless Big Things Happen).

3) Progressive voters (and we’re a big group, eh?) are so eager to get the chance to have a kick at the electoral can that, should one of either the NDP or the Liberals’ decide to deny an election and support the CPC now, you would hear the stampede of support rumbling away to the other federalist Opposition party in an instant. Neither Ignatieff nor Layton want to see that.

Top it off with bittersweet memories of the NDP “rewriting” Paul Martin’s budget five years ago. It was a source of triumphalism at the time, but all for nought when that hung parliament fell, taking that NDP budget with it. What of a repeat? Layton could support this Flaherty budget today (tomorrow), and come to Canadians afterwards, saying he’s made Parliament work, he’s got some good initiatives locked in for everyday families, the NDP have punched above their weight again, etc. All fine. But who’s betting such measures will see actual light of day? Jack would be naive in the extreme, I think, to accept half-measured promises which the PMO will almost certainly forget about from next week.

An election won’t simply feel good: it’s deserved, and it just might work. If not now, when?

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