Imagine this scenario. A federal election is called and the opposition is 15 points behind. As the days pass, the government is beset by a series of scandals none of which seem to affect its popularity. On debate night, the Prime Minister emerges triumphant but doesn’t get a lasting bounce in the polls.
Then the campaign breaks for a holiday and a report questioning the government’s ethics is released from an unimpeachable source. Suddenly the populace reaches a turning point and the lead changes hands.
Am I referring to the current campaign? No. The aforementioned scenario occurred during the 2006 election when Paul Martin lost his lead during Christmas and Stephen Harper surged ahead after the release of the now famous RCMP Income trust letter. It was the last straw for many Canadians tired of scandal. The Liberals never recovered.
Spring forward to Election 2011. The Liberals see many comforting similarities to the 2006 campaign. The PM has been beset by a series of questions on ethics and a report critical of the government has surfaced from another unimpeachable source (the Auditor General). Harper, like Martin in ‘06, clearly won the debate but it didn’t boost his popularity.
The campaigns are now breaking for another holiday. And as families gather together for Easter they’ll likely be discussing the election.
So will history repeat itself? Is this the turning point?
In 2006 the Liberals had been in power for 13 years and there was a sense of change in the air.
The Tories have only been in office for five years and the more salient undercurrent now is the need for stability. Moreover, in 2006 the Conservatives had a rock solid base in the west and just needed to move the polls a few points in the east to capture power.
In 2011, the Liberals are tied or trailing in their former bastions.
empts to demonize him in ‘06, Harper was viewed as a competent alternative. The same cannot be said for Michael Ignatieff in 2011. One must also take into account that in 2006 there was no split on the right to siphon off conservative votes.
Given Jack Layton’s superb campaign there is a decided split on the centre left. In fact, one poll (Angus Reid) has shown the NDP now tied with the Liberals.
So can Stephen Harper lose this election? Yes, if he starts kicking kittens. Otherwise, the only remaining question is whether he’ll win a majority or a minority.
In the meantime, a few tentative cracks in Team Liberal have begun to show. In a recent blog, Liberal stalwart Warren Kinsella referred to the Conservative campaign as “lousy” but the Liberal campaign as “lousier.”
Liberal bloggers, The Maple Three, are already predicting a Conservative majority. Not exactly fodder for energizing the troops. And the Liberals’ decision to ask former Prime Ministers Chretien and Martin to campaign with Ignatieff reeks of sheer desperation.
The Liberal express is holding together but the wheels are wobbling.
Falling poll numbers can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the numbers continue to slide, further cracks in the Liberal facade will be inevitable.
Because in politics, once things start falling apart, the centre cannot hold.
And that’s a turning point no party can ignore.
— Ray Smit is a regular columnist for The News.