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Adam Radwanski

Fleeting fortunes? Add to ...

As Peter Donolo points out, Stephen Harper has a dilemma on his hands.

The Prime Minister's polling numbers are soaring - indeed, for a Conservative between elections, they're nearly off the charts. His opponents, meanwhile, seem to be in a state of disarray. But it's hard for him to take immediate advantage of all this, because forcing an election would undermine the perception that he's committed to providing stable government rather than playing political games.

(It's worth pointing out that there's a certain novelty to this storyline, since Harper very nearly brought down his government less than two months after the last election by playing precisely the sort of political games he's now ostensibly opposed to, but such is the benefit of short attention spans.)

One might be inclined to look at the trajectory and assume that Harper needn't worry. Since last spring, the Conservatives and Liberals have been headed in very different directions from each other. If the pattern holds, the prospects for a majority would look even better somewhere in the first half of 2010 than they do now.

It's possible that's the way things will play out. But one of the things that made the Liberals' enthusiasm for a fall election so baffling was that Harper will likely be in a tougher position next spring, perception-wise, than he is now.

Much of what's led to a resurgence in the Conservatives' public support, other than the weakness of their opposition, is the sense that under their leadership Canada has weathered the economic storm. This may well be true, in terms of most barometers. But as Andrew Steele explained a couple of months ago, the barometers that help fuel public perception - most notably the unemployment rate, and also the government revenues that will help bring us back toward a balanced budget - will take longer to catch up.

Right now, there's a feeling of cautious optimism; at the very least, the government isn't being widely blamed for failing to steer Canadians back to prosperity. But five or six months from now, a stagnant (or still growing) unemployment rate combined with a bad-news budget could make the public restless again.

Of course, the Conservatives wouldn't really be to blame for a slower-than-expected recovery, any more than they deserve credit for the country avoiding a total economic collapse. But governments live and die based on perceptions about the economy, and that gives the Conservatives a good reason to want an election as quickly as possible.

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