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Prime Minister Stephen Harper releases his government's latest economic update at the Irving-owned NB Southern Railway mechanical shop in Saint John on Sept. 28, 2009. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper releases his government's latest economic update at the Irving-owned NB Southern Railway mechanical shop in Saint John on Sept. 28, 2009. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/The Canadian Press)

Andrew Steele

Notable by absence Add to ...

The third update on the stimulus package, delivered today by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a New Brunswick rail facility, was more notable for what was not in it than for what was.

Like the updates last spring, it was an unaudited declaration that the cheque is in the mail. According to the Prime Minister, 90 per cent of the infrastructure and other stimulus spending have been "allocated."

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However, exactly how much of the allocated dollars are actually translating into action remains an unanswered question. That is also the key question, as budgets and actuals are often two very different things.

The report issued by the Liberals last week raises the spectre that the spending on the ground is far less than in the imagination of civil servants. If 90 per cent of the money is allocated and just 12 per cent has actually flowed, what is the source of the delay?

But the real story was what was not done.

Leading up to today's report, there was considerable speculation that it would include the poison pill designed by the government to engineer their own downfall.

The somewhat twisted logic goes like this:

-- The Conservatives are doing better in the polls now than at any other time when they realistically could hold an election.

-- Therefore, the Conservatives actively wish to have an election.

-- However, the Conservatives' boost in the polls may be due to the electioneering machinations of their rivals.

-- If they are to hold an election, they must not be caught holding the trigger.

-- Instead, they must gently force a circumstance whereby the opposition parties all agree they cannot support a confidence bill and the government falls.

Here is where the problem stands.

Today's update is before the Liberal confidence motion later this week. There will be no greater opportunity to get their desired election on the circumstances of their preference, think the imaginary Conservatives in this exercise, than if the Liberals are actively seen to be bringing the government down. Better to test those waters before resorting to anything more dramatic that may get our fingerprints on the knife.

As you can tell, all this intrigue is a bit mind-boggling.

It also goes against my experience.

Typically, governments want to stay in power until they decide its time for an election. They will scratch and claw and bite to hold onto office (see Martin, Paul c. May 2005 and Harper, Stephen c. December 2008). Or they can drop everything and call an election on instinct (see Chrétien, Jean c. May 1997, Chrétien, Jean c. September 2000 and Harper, Stephen c. August 2008.)

But it's pretty rare to try and finagle an election through the back door on hopes and dreams.

Electoral machinery doesn't crank up suddenly. It's more like a car that wasn't plugged in on a cold morning: best to let it warm up a bit.

The only advantage that the "you forced an unnecessary election" high road conveys is placing a little earned media coverage at your back during the first week.

The "unnecessary election" story typically runs aground after a few days, once real stories open up. The example that everyone dotes on is the 1990 Ontario election, where the Liberal government, cruising at 50 per cent in the polls, got caught up on why the election was being called. The difference is that no one expected a contest and so the election conditions were never drowned out by a debate about real issues. It just became a door that allowed pent-up voter anger about the economy and the Meech Lake deal to seep through.

My bet is that the Harper Conservatives are sticking with their plan since the Coalition Crisis:

-- Get through 2009 and put the worst of the recession behind us.

-- Use the stimulus fund to demonstrate action, particularly in key constituencies.

-- Set up a withering pre-writ of earned and paid media, including the Olympics, a throne speech, budget and copious advertisements.

-- Only then, if conditions are right, do you pull the plug.

If the above plan is executed properly, as Mike Harris did in 1999, the result is saturation coverage for the government in the weeks leading upto the election. In essence you turn the five-week writ into eight weeks, and win the first three by default.

Or, the government could fall Friday, but who knows? That's why they print new newspapers every day, instead of just reading the old ones.

 

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