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A couple walks up to a polling station near Sidney, B.C, iin the federal riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands on Oct. 14, 2008. (Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail)
A couple walks up to a polling station near Sidney, B.C, iin the federal riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands on Oct. 14, 2008. (Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail)

Lookahead

Can Harper wait out the election traffic jam? Add to ...

If the Conservatives can survive the vote on their March budget, they will earn the equivalent of one year of majority government.

That's because, thanks to the nationwide trend toward fixed election dates, we know there will be at least five provincial elections this autumn: Prince Edward Island (Oct. 3) Manitoba (Oct. 4), Ontario (Oct. 6), Newfoundland and Labrador (Oct. 11) and Saskatchewan (Nov. 7).

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There simply isn't enough money or enough volunteers to hold five provincial elections and a federal election in one season, especially when one of those provinces is Ontario.

The prospect of 12 months of electoral security - if they get it - will change the way the Conservatives govern. They hope to move from the crisis management associated with minority government to focusing on a few major priorities that will roll out over the course of the year. And they believe they have the man in place to make that new strategy happen.

It's all about Nigel. Nigel Wright, former Bay Street tycoon, is officially on the job as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff. He is expected to dampen the for-the-throat partisanship that characterized his predecessor Guy Giorno's tenure, and to focus more on the major policy objectives of 2011. His presence has a lot to do with the Tories' hopes to govern as though they had a majority this year.

Caveat. Events, dear boy, can upset the best-stacked apple cart. The Conservatives have always been their own worst enemy, when it comes to derailing the government's agenda. And if Mr. Wright finds himself enmeshed in conflict-of-interest controversies, thanks to his many business ties, he could become the story rather than staying in the background and shaping it.

One continent, one perimeter. Talks are still under way on measures to promote a continental approach to security, with any announcement now expected in February or later. The goal is to increase bilateral co-operation on screening people and goods arriving in either country. In exchange, the non-tariff barrier that has evolved along the 49th parallel since Sept. 11 - the product of ever-more-onerous American security demands - will at least partially ease. The challenge is getting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is deeply suspicious of what it sees as Canada's lax border control, to compromise. Some Conservatives see continental security as one of the government's major initiatives in 2011, if the two countries can strike a meaningful deal.

Caveat. Opposition parties, along with most Canadians, will unite against the proposals, if they undermine federal control over immigration and refugee policies, or if Canada surrenders autonomy over border security without getting a meaningfully thinned Canada-U.S. border in exchange.

It's our Arctic. Putting a new polar icebreaker out to tender? Arming coast-guard vessels? Forcing every ship entering the Northwest Passage to obtain a licence? We don't know what the Tories have in store for their 2011 Arctic agenda, but an agenda there will be. At the least, the federal government is expected to sign an international agreement on Arctic search-and-rescue responsibilities this spring, and there will be other measures that emphasize the Harper government's commitment to the North.

Caveat. Meaningful commitments, such as that icebreaker, cost money. Any agreement on policing the Northwest Passage rests on American co-operation. And there could be dissonance, as the Conservatives are seen to bullishly assert sovereignty over Arctic waters while surrendering sovereignty to the Americans at the border.

Sharpening the ballot question. And that question is: Do you trust (a) the Conservatives to protect jobs, lower taxes and balance the budget over time, or (b) the Liberals, who promise new investments in home care and child care? At least, that's what the Conservatives want the question to be, because they think more people will vote (a). So the Tories will hammer the economy question every day and in every way.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister's Office released a letter from Mr. Harper to his caucus promising that the budget will concentrate on "the next phase of Canada's Economic Action Plan to sustain the fragile economic recovery," while still eliminating the deficit by 2015. Expect to hear more of this -in fact, nothing but this - over the coming weeks.

Caveat. Actually a lot of people do want help looking after young children and aging parents. And providing fresh economic stimulus while constraining spending and eliminating the deficit in four years is a hat trick that neither the Americans nor the Europeans think possible.

One last thing. If the opposition parties wake up to the implications of giving the Conservatives a full year of largely unfettered power, they might reconsider allowing the government to survive the budget. Critics darkly warn of the evils that will befall the country, if the Conservatives are given a majority. But if the budget passes, that's essentially what we'll have for 12 full months.

 

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