maybe not

Many Canadians believe it's virtually guaranteed that the Harper government will come back with a majority in the next election. Although I understand that's the Conservative strategy and intentions, I believe it's premature to predict the outcome. A lot can happen between now and the next election, whenever that might be, and Harper's looking none too popular right now.

Of course I don't know any more than anyone making these bold predictions, but I've come to realize I don't know that much less, either.

For those of us who dread the idea of a Conservative majority, here's a little hope from Globe And Mail columnist John Ibbitson.
The federal Conservatives insist otherwise, but they may have done irreparable harm to their dreams of winning a majority government.

Unfortunately for the three opposition parties, there is little chance they will be able to exploit the situation. The Tories would not gain as many seats as they would like if an election were held tomorrow, but neither would the Liberals, Bloc Québécois or NDP.

This is bad news for political operatives of all stripes, but good news for voters, who may now be spared the unpleasantness of another federal election for some time.

The Conservatives have never made a secret of their two-election strategy for attaining a majority government. The first step was to defeat the Liberals and win a minority. Then, went the theory, the Conservatives would govern well, reassuring nervous voters who would reward the new governing party with a majority next time out.

To win a majority, the Conservatives must increase their seat count by at least 30. Since only incremental gains are available elsewhere, this means winning 15 or more seats in Quebec, in addition to holding their existing 10, and another 15 or more seats in suburban Ontario, while retaining their current 40.

These are big numbers, and not easily achieved. And the Conservatives seem hell-bent on not achieving them.

The Kyoto Protocol on climate change is popular in Quebec, but the Conservatives have declared that Canada won't meet its targets. The Afghan deployment is unpopular in Quebec, but the Conservatives are four-square behind it.

The long-gun registry was more popular in urban Quebec and Ontario than in most other parts of the country, but the government has scrapped it anyway. Same-sex marriage is strongly supported by Montrealers and Torontonians, but the Tories will reopen debate on the legislation this fall.

And if that weren't enough, the Harper government's firm support for Israel in this latest war is bound to alienate immigrant Canadians, many of whom are sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians and Arabs, and who largely congregate in suburban Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Given all the negatives that the Tories are piling up within constituencies they must woo to win a majority, it's hard to imagine them scoring 30 seats.

Conservative strategists insist this analysis is superficial. They argue that Quebeckers, suburban Ontarians and immigrant Canadians will support their party even if they disagree with its stands on specific issues because they see Stephen Harper as a strong leader who will keep taxes low and government small.

The Conservatives are also bolstered by the fragile state of the opposition. The Bloc has been badly frightened by the Tory surge in Quebec, and fears further losses. Right now, the Bloc is the government's best friend in the House of Commons.

The NDP under Jack Layton has settled into comfortable stagnation, its typical state. And most thoughtful Liberals are skeptical about the electoral chances of Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae or Stéphane Dion, the three leadership candidates with the best chance of winning.

So, while the Tories may have to abandon hope of a majority in the next election, they are not in imminent danger of defeat. And the polls bear this out, putting the Conservatives in the high 30s, which is about where they were on Jan. 23, and the Liberals in the mid-20s, down slightly from election night. (It will be very interesting to see whether the government's pro-Israeli stand affects its support in the polls.)

There will be a confidence vote on the softwood-lumber agreement this fall, and another next spring on the 2007 budget. But, barring the unforeseen, the government should survive both tests, simply because an election is in no one's interest.

Politics, however, is always about the unforeseen. So if a big scandal breaks, or the Tories' popularity suddenly spikes, just forget you read any of this. Okay?

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