The case for a needless election

Simon Jackson: Let's vote now and clear the air.

It was unimaginable.

Not the fact that Canadian politicians were ratcheting up the rhetoric and hurtling themselves toward a second federal election in less than a year. But that it was the NDP's Jack Layton who blinked first and brought things to a halt. 

This is, after all, the same Jack Layton who taunted the Liberals endlessly for supporting Stephen Harper's Conservatives in 79 straight confidence motions. And who declared the NDP would vote against the federal budget earlier this year before even having read it. 

Now he is the one propping up the Harper government?

I could go on, but the stunning height from which Jack Layton fell off his high horse these past weeks was nothing short of dramatic.

Let's think this thing through: Jack Layton at the NDP convention in August 2009. (Tim Krochak/Canadian Press)

Most Canadians, I'm sure, will welcome Layton's about-face — regardless of what he said in the past — for the country appears to have been saved a needless, expensive election during an economic storm.

Personally, I'm not sold on the fact that we're out of the election woods yet. There are already rumblings that the NDP caucus is split over the virtues of the proffered employment insurance reforms.

And we probably can't discount the Conservatives engineering their own defeat, given their recent uptick in the polls. 

All that said, for argument's sake, let's agree that the next election won't happen until after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

If the government does survive into the new year, it will more than likely fall when it introduces its next budget in March.

After all, it's hard to imagine the NDP being able to justify supporting Stephen Harper beyond the EI reforms — just as it's hard to imagine Michael Ignatieff backing down from the very steep ("Your time is up") ledge he put himself on. 

So we are just living on borrowed time.

Best of the bad

Now, I have no quarrel with the vast majority of voters in this country who are against having another election. I mostly feel that way myself.

However, I'm equally aware that Parliament is beyond dysfunctional, that it has become locked into a cycle of vicious partisan attacks and policy making on the basis of niche groups rather than national merit.

And this begs the question: Is having another election this fall — no matter how needless or expensive — the worst option available? Especially given that the alternative is likely just a stay of execution until the spring?

I'd argue that it's not. Because until one national party is able to secure a majority — or until each party finds itself a new leader free of the political baggage that weighs down the current crop — political stability and a more thoughtful discourse will remain only a dream.

The good news, though, is that the next election will all but assuredly deliver one of these results.

Only one party has a legitimate chance of forming a majority government — the Conservatives. What mere months ago seemed an unlikely goal, given the series of strategic blunders regarding Quebec, is now very much a possibility.

Canadians are clearly growing weary of minority governments and the result is benefiting the Conservatives.

A majority Conservative government won't be easy. But as Andrew Steele outlined recently in his blog in the Globe and Mail, it is now possible, even with a poor result in Quebec.

With only a dozen seats to pick up — and assuming the Conservatives can retain most of their seats in Quebec — then modest gains in Ontario (probably in the North) and B.C. (suburban and urban Vancouver and Victoria) could put him over the top.

In B.C., where I live, a shift of fewer than five thousands votes from the last election would help Harper gain five additional seats.

Win or else

However, if we have an election and the Conservatives are unable to form a majority government, it would be fair to say the knives would be out for all of the party leaders.

Without question, this next election will be Stephen Harper's last if he fails to gain a majority.

Four kicks at the can is more than most leaders are afforded and while Harper helped get the Conservatives back into government, it will be apparent probably even to the most diehard supporter that he is not the guy to get the party across the threshold.

Given his age and his machismo push for a vote, Michael Ignatieff might only get the one chance at leading his party to victory.

Once thought of as the man to save the Liberal party from itself (and from Stéphane Dion), Ignatieff has been weakened, ironically, by his desire to look strong and demand an election without a solid, articulated reason why.

Gilles Duceppe will likely be the safest of all of the leaders. But after six elections, the Bloc — and Duceppe — will probably want a change. Even Elizabeth May's coast-to-coast leadership within the Green Party could be in jeopardy after this next vote.

Then there is Jack Layton. His who-will-I-support style was looking tired even prior to this most recent performance. But this latest about-face may have mortally wounded his leadership, especially if it is seen to lose the NDP seats.

A reprieve?

With leadership races in most, if not all, of the national parties, there would be little incentive for the constant electioneering and partisan wars that have been the hallmark of our recent times.

That could mean that real policy debate would take place and that the next minority government should be stable for at least a couple of years.

Additionally, with the emergence of a new set of leaders, there would be an opportunity for a rapprochement between at least some of the parties (Unite the left?) and the chance to find at least some common ground to improve the level of discourse and the results for all Canadians.

Of course, all of this might be wishful thinking, but a needless election could just be our best hope to put an end to what is increasingly becoming a crisis of non-governance, voter apathy and a democratic deficit of epic proportions.

So if Jack Layton continues to save Canadians a trip to the polls this fall, he will ultimately have only delayed the inevitable — and done so at the expense of stability and the much needed fresh blood required to overcome the acrimony that has stalled our current political life.