Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first minority government was one of the longest in Canadian history (the average tenure is about 18 months). And Mr. Harper could have continued to govern for who knows how long had he respected his fixed-election-date law.
Why the longevity? Although Mr. Harper ended up with fewer seats in 2006 than Paul Martin had won in 2004, the Conservatives needed the support of only one opposition party to survive. As long as one of the opposition leaders was not eager for an election, the Prime Minister could maintain confidence in what the Brits refer to as a "hung Parliament."
In the 2008 election, Mr. Harper won more seats and still needed the support of only one party to stay in office. Yet, had he not persuaded Governor-General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue the House, his government would probably have been defeated by Christmas.
Why the difference? For some reason, the opposition leaders got it into their heads that Her Excellency was obliged to hand power to them if they defeated the government. When it dawned on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff that Ms. Jean could accede to the Prime Minister's request and call an election, that was the end of that.
For a while, at least.
A month ago, less than a year after the last election, the Liberals announced that they were withdrawing confidence in the Conservatives. And, for a few weeks, it appeared that Mr. Harper's time was indeed up, as Mr. Ignatieff put it. Until, that is, NDP Leader Jack Layton took a look at the polls and found virtue in supporting the government.
And, with the release of three polls in the past fortnight showing that the Conservatives may be headed to a majority, it now appears that the government is secure until next year's budget - though perhaps not much longer.
For the past week, the NDP has been positioning itself to thwart the implementation of a harmonized sales tax in B.C. and Ontario. While the Conservatives have met Mr. Layton's new tax-cutting persona with some derision (likening him, for example, to Colonel Sanders protecting chickens), the Prime Minister should not underestimate the anger of British Columbians, in particular, at the prospect of paying tax on previously exempt items. Nor should they underestimate the potential spill-over of this anger into federal politics, which could easily tempt the NDP to withdraw confidence in the Conservatives.
In this context, Mr. Harper would be wise not to wait until the spring budget to bring in his legislation. The Conservatives are in a strong position today, the opposition parties are in a weak position - and all this could change in a few months.
Were the NDP to oppose the tax-harmonization legislation - either now or in the spring - the Conservatives could make a pitch for the support of the Bloc Québécois. Its MPs have been seeking $2.6-billion in compensation for Quebec's agreement in 1991 to merge its sales tax with the federal goods and services tax.
But Bloc support would leave the Conservatives open to the charge in the next election campaign that they imposed a hugely unpopular tax on British Columbians and Ontarians with the assistance of a party dedicated to promoting the interests of Quebec.
Which leaves the Conservatives one good alternative to pass legislation that B.C. and Ontario will need to prepare their next budgets.
At their recent party meeting in Quebec, Liberal MPs were openly disagreeing whether they would systematically be voting against the Conservatives or whether they would vote case by case. A day later, according to Le Devoir, Mr. Ignatieff settled the dispute by indicating that his caucus would vote case by case, except for confidence matters, on which they would systematically vote to defeat the government. And legislation to implement the harmonized sales tax would be a confidence matter.
Recently, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between their offices, we learned that Mr. Ignatieff has promised Premier Dalton McGuinty that federal Liberals will respect Ontario's HST agreement with Ottawa. If the Conservatives bring in their tax-harmonization legislation in the coming weeks, the Liberal Leader will have a difficult decision to make. The fear of a majority Conservative government, were he to defeat Mr. Harper, should concentrate his mind wonderfully.
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