Welcome to election year, date to be determined

Will Stephen Harper 'spring' ahead with an election call, or fall back? Fixed-date law says Oct. 19, but politics does have its way of intruding, Chris Hall observes.

Spring ahead or fall back? Fixed-date law says Oct. 19, but politics can intrude

For Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, shown here participating in a discussion with the Retail Council of Canada in the back of a Canadian Tire store in December, the campaign has already begun. (REUTERS)

Hold your breath. Or rather, don't. Even though we're now officially into an election year, the prime minister insists he has no plans to go to the polls before the fixed election date of Oct. 19, 2015.

"I can honestly tell you we've had no discussion at any level of changing the date," he told the CBC's Peter Mansbridge in an interview before Christmas. "I don't know where that's coming from."

Well, for starters, it comes from experience. Prime ministers go to the polls when the timing looks best, the country's new fixed-date election law be damned.

And then there are those events already on the 2015 calendar, like the spring budget with its promised surplus and the scheduled April trial of suspended Conservative Senator Mike Duffy.

The early part of this new year offers plenty of fodder for the argument that waiting until fall may not be in Harper's, or the Conservatives', best interests.

Throw in bottom-barrel oil prices, a wave of announced spending cuts by Husky, Chevron, Petronas and other large players in the energy sector, and you get the picture.

Better to seize your moment than be crushed by economic problems beyond your control.

The opposition certainly isn't buying the prime minister's claims.

"We're obviously fully into the election cycle now,'' says NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen.

NDP's Thomas Mulcair sits with Roughrider fans during the first half of the CFL game between Saskatchewan and Edmonton in Regina on Nov. 8. What will he be doing in a year's time? (Reuters)

His party has already begun staking policy claims, among them a pledge to raise the minimum wage for federal workers and an ambitious national child-care program.

Cullen says New Democrats will continue to put flesh on the bones of their platform in the months ahead.

"I believe we're in a three-way race going into 2015," he says. "I think across this country, depending on which region you're in, the race looks a little different. But boy-oh-boy, 2015 is going to be an exciting year."

Money matters

For the Conservatives, the pre-election narrative will go something like this.

First: focus on the accomplishment of the past four years of majority government.

In this, look for the focus to be on economic management, the completion of trade deals and Harper's emergence on the international scene, whether it's talking tough to Russia's President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, or winning plaudits for driving the UN's maternal and child-health initiative in developing countries.

Second, tell Canadians what you intend to do for them in the next four years.

On both fronts, the Conservatives have one big thing going in their favour. Money. Lots of campaign money.

The Conservatives have raised far more than either of their main opponents, and that is money the party can freely spend on all manner of political advertising before an election is called.

"If I'm the prime minister that's a significant advantage," a Liberal strategist says. "We've closed the gap. But with no spending limits pre-writ, the Conservatives have the money to promote their agenda.''

And it's not just the party's bank roll that's in play.

The Conservatives haven't been at all shy about using government resources to promote their legislative initiatives, the most recent being the ad barrage around the fall economic update, which brought in income-splitting for families with children, and enhanced the universal child-care benefit.

In both cases, voters won't see the results until later this year.

The middle class

New Democrats are busy constructing their own narrative about the Conservatives' record over nine years in office — a record they argue includes the Senate scandal, election fraud and a total disregard for the environment.

For the Liberals, the focus will be on the youthful appeal of party leader Justin Trudeau, and the central theme that Harper's priorities do not reflect or reward middle-class Canadians.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been leading in the polls for most of this past year. But what will an election year bring? (REUTERS)

The Liberals maintain that the Conservatives' income-splitting plan rewards wealthy Canadians more than it does those in real need.

Both opposition parties insist most families will see little if any savings from the so-called family tax cut.

The goal is to debunk the Conservatives' message that only a re-elected Harper government can be trusted to manage the country's finances.

"I think the opposition has to get going if they want to counter the spin that the Conservatives are the best economic managers around,'' says David McLaughlin, a former Conservative chief of staff and campaign strategist.

Scraping the barrel

That's not to say the Conservative don't have challenges of their own, particularly with the price of oil now sitting at roughly $30-a-barrel less than what the government forecast.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver needs to produce a surplus when he tables his first budget this spring, if only to give the prime minister an option should he decide an October election is too far away.

But both opposition parties have their own problems as well, heading into 2015.

The New Democrats are mired in third in nearly every public opinion poll, and former caucus chair Glenn Thibeault bolted to run for the Ontario Liberals just before Christmas, saying it was where he could best serve his Sudbury constituents.

As for the Liberals, Trudeau has yet to lay out a policy agenda. And there has been significant confusion over some of the positions he has taken, such as on sending fighter jets to Iraq and announcing that all of his candidates must be pro-choice.

It all makes for an interesting lead-up to this election year.

So, hold your breath, or don't. Circle Oct. 19 on your calendar.

But you might want to do it in pencil.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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