Trust is a hard thing to win back once lost. If Stephen Harper calculates that electoral fraud and corruption allegations stand to damage the Conservative brand with its own supporters, might he gamble on a fresh mandate?
The timing might not get better.
Perhaps the safe option would be to dig in and ride out the next two years. But I see two long-term risks to that plan.
- One is Elections Canada’s ongoing investigation into misleading robocalls during the 2011 campaign. With this week’s federal court ruling that fraud did indeed take place across the country — and that the perpetrators had access to the Conservative Party’s CIMS database — the case for by-elections in tainted ridings will grow. The Conservatives need lose only 10 seats to put them in minority territory.
- Compounding the danger is the growing disgust within the party over perceived hypocrisy. After being elected on promises of fiscal transparency and moral probity, two more years of scandal could discourage longtime Conservative supporters enough to stay home. Or, in the worst-case scenario for Harper, the vaunted “big blue tent” could split — for example, if socially-conservative Western MPs decide that rot has taken over the party’s core.
One way to head off both possibilities would be to dissolve parliament, ask voters for a renewed mandate, promise to put the economy first, and in so doing wipe the slate (mostly) clean. Consider the following:
- The NDP was utterly humiliated in the recent BC election. That was supposed to be the Western stronghold from which a second Orange Wave would sweep. Instead, imported federal campaign gurus Brian Topp and Brad Lavigne managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The earlier the next federal election, the less time the NDP will have to regain confidence in its “positive” campaign philosophy — and convince its troops that 2011 was more than a lucky high-water mark.
- Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is counting on the next two years to prove himself in Parliament and rebuild his party’s electoral infrastructure, riding by riding. The earlier the next federal election, the less comfortable voters will be handing power to Trudeau.
- Both the Liberals and the NDP have rejected calls for electoral cooperation — too recently to change their position, and too recently to have made much progress, even in secret talks.
- Third-party advocacy groups are only starting to implement the campaign lessons and new strategies that might make them a factor in defeating the Conservatives. The earlier the next federal election, the less time environmental groups and pro-democracy groups have to organize.
- The Conservative Party tends to perform well in an environment of low overall voter engagement. Summer elections are usually known for reduced turnout.
- The job market still appears to be growing, but consumer confidence is quietly slipping. The earlier the next federal election, the less chance of dramatic economic setbacks that might contradict Conservative branding.
Again, the timing might not get better for Harper.
Another majority win would provide a stable timeframe to push through energy project approvals and continue cutbacks to government regulators and data-gathering departments. It would also set up an orderly transfer of power, letting Harper hand the reins gradually to his political heir. Jason Kenney is the name that comes up most often.
What do you think? Will Harper call an early election?