Feb. 28, 2004.
More could be lost in waiting

JAMES TRAVERS

Ottawa—A Prime Minister who wrestles tirelessly with tough decisions now faces one that will determine his and his party's future.

Within weeks, Paul Martin must choose between asking volatile voters for their support before summer or waiting at least until fall in the faint hope that time will improve Liberal fortunes.

A quick glance at today's Ekos Research poll suggests the ruling party would risk its majority — perhaps power itself — in an early election and would be wise to wait.

But a careful second reading explains why Martin and backroom tacticians are inclined to put Liberal hegemony on the line no later than June.

While the numbers are better for the Liberals than they were a week ago — Canada's party of perpetual power is still hovering near its lowest point since the 1997 election and even without a leader the Conservatives are emerging as an alternative — they also reveal Liberal assets that will only grow in importance as voters move from expressing an easy opinion to casting an informed ballot.

Martin is weathering the current contracting scandal much better than his party.

The issues most likely to shape the coming campaign tilt in favour of the Liberals who, as usual, are sprawled across the centre of the political spectrum.

Despite his current troubles, despite a surprisingly shaky first few months in power, Martin stands almost alone as the country's first choice for prime minister.

And the issues that matter most — health care, competent economic management and job creation — are Liberal strengths, while those that concern Canadians less — ethics, accountability and taxes — are primarily the purview of opposition parties.

What all that means is that Liberals can proceed with what has always been their plan.

Believing their fall in public esteem is over and in the reasonable expectation of a positive response, they can ask the county to give a new prime minister a chance and a mandate.

So the odds now favour an election on the cusp between spring and summer. But the odds of calling an election and the odds of winning an election are not the same.

To seize another majority — and anything less would humiliate Martin — Liberals must reverse what for them are dangerous trends. Along with their own recent slide, they must change the flow away from new thinking that a party other than Liberals could govern competently and the accompanying view that a minority government is in the national interest.

Much as it will annoy Westerners alienated by the federal fixation on central Canada, those substantial threats to the ruling party will again make Ontario and Quebec the coming campaign's focal point.

At current support levels, up to 30 Liberal seats are in jeopardy in Ontario while next door in Quebec a combination of the scandal and disappointment in Liberal Premier Jean Charest's performance is breathing new life into a Bloc Québécois that just weeks ago was moribund.

That presents the Prime Minister with a second significant problem. He must steady the badly shaken confidence of a party dominated by Ontario and Quebec MPs, many of whom face ruthless culling by armed and angry voters.

Into their ears Martin can whisper only that the best chance of returning to Ottawa is on his coattails, coattails that could be threadbare by fall. They would be wise to listen.

As the poll makes abundantly clear, after a static decade, the political plates are shifting. Driven more by spectacular Liberal failures than by notable opposition successes, increasingly fickle voters and can no longer be expected to routinely endorse what was beginning to look, feel and smell too much like one-party rule.

It would be foolhardy to believe that what promises to be a long, hot political summer won't reinforce those concerns and that sentiment.

There is nothing for Liberals but more pain lurking in public inquiries into the contracting scandals and the Maher Arar affair, as well as in the pending Supreme Court opinion on same-sex marriage.

Worse still, by fall the failings of a cabinet and administrative structure designed to showcase change rather than implement it will be obvious even to casual observers.

Lump all that together and reach the conclusion that time favours the opposition. Given enough of it, a Conservative party will have a platform as well as a new leader, Jack Layton and the NDP may find the traction they are mysteriously missing and both will have plenty more ammunition to use against a suddenly vulnerable incumbent.

Nervous Liberals will argue against gratuitously giving voters a chance to vent their fury. They will counsel caution, reminding Martin that there is little support for a spring election and that he has the luxury of waiting until fall, 2005.

Advisers close to the Prime Minister will make a more compelling case. In politics it's axiomatic that governments rarely gain public support in power and those who dither while credibility and opportunity erode pay a fancy price on election day.

Even so, Martin won't find this decision easy.

If he rushes into an election and voters prove as vengeful as talk-show callers, he won't be forgiven by a party that makes power its first, sometimes only, priority.

If he hesitates and Liberal prospects fall farther by autumn, his party and history will be equally savage.

That conundrum promises endless meetings and sleepless nights. But barring more bad news for his party, Martin will wake sometime in the month ahead certain that in waiting there is more to be lost than gained.

Additional articles by James Travers


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