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Brian Topp

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The Conservative government is going to survive the coming vote on its ways-and-means motion Friday, courtesy of the separatists.

And it seems more likely than not that the government's employment insurance package will attract the support of the socialists, as an acceptable first step towards improving the EI system.

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That being so, the government's next test will be a Liberal confidence motion a few weeks from now, on that party's first opposition day.

Wise opposition parties will reserve their options until shortly before that vote, to keep the government on its toes and to maintain maximum flexibility in the face of unforeseen events. But it is fair to say that the odds that the Liberals will have all of the opposition votes they'll need to pass that motion are lower than they would have been had the Liberals been doing a better job of talking to the rest of the opposition.

I'll return to the current right-wing populist fetish against parliamentarians talking to each other in a future note.

So why didn't the New Democrats want to defeat the Harper government early in this session of Parliament, as they so energetically tried to do last fall?

Remembering my note that what follows are strictly my own views and in no way represent those of my co-religionists, I think the New Democrats have plenty of good reasons not to join the Liberals in triggering an election -- so far, pending events.

There's the politics:

To begin, Canadians could not be more clear that they are not looking for a federal election right now.

Further, public-domain polls are all telling pretty much the same story, which is that there is no reason to believe that an election now would produce a fundamentally different Parliament.

My old boss Roy Romanow used to say that given equally competent campaigns, you can usually expect that parties will come out of an election campaign with the support they had going into it.

Eleven months into this new Parliament, it makes little sense for New Democrats to invest something in the range of $25-million of their members' money (counting national and local spending) to return with a caucus roughly the same size as the current one. And to face a Parliament made up of Conservative, Liberal and Bloc caucuses that are also essentially in their current proportions. There is nothing the NDP could do in such a Parliament that it can't do in the current one.

It could have been argued (and was by some) that even with similar results, an election would create another shot at forming a new governing combination to replace Stephen Harper's government. But Michael Ignatieff explicitly and forcefully took this off the table last Friday. New Democrats extended Mr. Ignatieff the courtesy of taking him seriously. He wishes to be a solitary player. So be it.

There's the substance:

That was a fairly astute EI package that the Conservatives floated this week. It was a minimal effort, perfectly targeted to address the needs of the communities most New Democrat MPs represent. On the positive side, the New Democrats will have something to point to as a gain should that package be adopted (more than other opposition parties can claim). On the other side, the Conservative EI package would give Conservative candidates some serious ammunition were it to be defeated.

And there's hope for the future:

Eleven months is not a lot of time to recharge for another federal election campaign.

Especially when key sections of your tribe have been busy fighting critically important provincial elections in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and are gearing up for a provincial leadership race that will determine the next premier of Manitoba.

More time to recharge will be useful if used well -- it will quickly translate into a larger election budget; a stronger slate of candidates (all free from unhelpful YouTube postings... right, comrades?); stronger riding associations; better research; a better tour.

Conceivably, time will also work for the government. The Great Recession may be easing. Perhaps Mr. Harper will get the credit for the stimulative effect of the U.S. federal budget, run by a progressive Democrat.

But it is at least equally possible that time will NOT work for the government. Mr. Harper and his party are out of step and out of touch with a significant majority of the people of Canada. In tough economic times, we have re-learned, Canadians are reluctant to rock the boat. But as the economic crisis eases they may be more willing to consider a change of direction, toward government more to their liking.

Mr. Harper's government might make that easier by committing some egregious mistake that will underline what an alien plant this government is in Canada's political culture. As we saw last fall, they make those mistakes when they are overconfident. Perhaps the events of this week will lull them into a similar mood.

As for the red team, it would seem that the more Canadians get to know Michael Ignatieff, the less they like him. One of the eternal verities that experienced political ministers in the Saskatchewan CCF-NDP teach new staffers is this: never get in the way of an opponent who is destroying himself. There is no obvious reason, as things stand today, not to let that process continue to do its virtuous work.

Unlike Mr. Ignatieff to date, Mr. Harper is often an astute tactician and strategist. But he also seems to be the most effective MP in the House at damaging his own government. In the weeks or months to come he will hopefully return to type and hand the opposition -- preferably, to be specific, the New Democrats -- another game-changing blunder.

Given the current chess board, that will be worth waiting for.

 

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