I wrote a few weeks ago that Parliament is witnessing a collision between three visions of what it should be about. Let's check in on them and see how they're coming along.
The latest Conservative vision might be summarized as touche pas la patente ("don't touch the thing" -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it).
It seems clear that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government take the view that the longer they can remain in office without doing anything really dumb, the better their support will be. Just to make sure that's true, they have been spending millions in public money on partisan government advertising to pump that support. Steady as she goes... no more dumb mistakes... make it to the G8... make it through the Olympics... and then off to the races off the next budget.... perhaps, depending on the numbers.
So far it seems to be working out pretty well -- except that the numbers probably aren't there yet for a majority victory.
It's true that Jean Chretien squeaked out a bare majority in 1997 with 38.5 per cent of the vote -- about where the Conservatives are now. But he did that with a perfect Progressive Conservative-Reform split and a temporarily feeble New Democratic Party still dragging around its unfortunate record in provincial government in Ontario -- a province that therefore gave Mr. Chretien 101 out of 103 Ontario seats in that election. The same 38.5 per cent today probably doesn't do that for Stephen Harper. Too many votes wasted in Alberta, the Prairies and rural ridings. Plenty of viable opposition party MPs holding on to incumbent seats in Ontario.
As long as that remains true, the Conservatives will probably be wise to keep jumping up and down on the diving board, waiting for the pool to fill some more.
Hopefully, it won't.
The New Democrat vision is "try to make the place work".
This, as I've noted before, represents quite a repositioning for Jack Layton's tribe -- evidence that the federal New Democrats are evolving nicely into a national political party able to understand and manoeuvre pragmatically inside a complex political environment.
Since it makes no strategic sense for the NDP to trigger an election now, they're trying the next best thing -- which is to work for some results from Parliament.
In September they facilitated some meaningful improvements to the EI system -- still in progress.
Yesterday Mr. Layton set out some practical steps Parliament could take to improve income security for seniors.
One prudent, sensible step at a time, Mr Layton is therefore re-assembling his lustre as the federal politician that puts ordinary folks first. And the notably strong 36-member NDP caucus elected with him in 2008 are coming into their own as critics and advocates.
In the result, most public domain polls show, the New Democrats are holding on to their doubled level of support (the NDP vote has increased to about 2.5 million per election under Layton, from their typical 1990s vote in the range of 1 million). Leading indicators like "best PM" and key competence measures are heading the right way as well.
The Liberal vision... hmm.
In September they were pursuing a coherent goal. They were playing out a carefully-conceived multi-stage plan designed to force an election this fall, hoping that Mr. Harper would be suffering from the recession, and that Michael Ignatieff would be enjoying a honeymoon.
Unfortunately this plan was founded on several miscalculations.
First, Mr. Harper is clearly not wearing the recession, which is widely understood to have been made in the United States (by feckless conservatives just like our current government, but that's another discussion).
Second, Mr. Ignatieff's strategy depended on securing agreement from both the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois, but Mr. Ignatieff made it perfectly clear this fall that he was not interested in co-operating with the socialists or the separatists... and so he didn't have the votes he needed to bring down the government , with catastrophic effects on his party support and leadership numbers. So much for the honeymoon.
So a new vision for Parliament was required from the red team.
And this month they seem to have settled on... touche pas la patente.
Mr. Ignatieff has no particular issues or priorities he wants to address in this Parliament or, so it would seem, in politics. The idea therefore seems to be to flail away in all directions until Christmas, and to hope that time heals the red team base of support at some point in the new year. Perhaps assisted by a magic policy conference in January.
That makes two national parties dedicated to not toucheing the patente. They might as well be asleep. Another good reason to make Jack Layton prime minister -- at least he wants to get something done.