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Sunday August 10, 2008

Harper's future will be decided in Ontario


The way Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion is talking this summer, it looks like the next federal election is around the corner. The problem is that the Grit leader can't find that corner yet. Nonetheless, the fatigue of keeping this Parliament alive, for no other reason than that nobody has the courage to put an end to it, is mounting. Of course, there is still the possibility that this will be the first federal minority government to go the full term in a long time, but the chances of an October vote are increasing.

What are the ingredients for a Liberal or Conservative victory? The list is short: money, organization, a program and a strong leader able to sell it.

Before looking in detail at these ingredients, it's important to note some geographic considerations. In Western Canada and the East Coast, we will not see the seismic movements necessary to influence the national outcome. A breakthrough by the Conservatives in Quebec comes only when the voters can sense a landslide in the rest of the country, so the future of Stephen Harper's government will be decided by the Conservative performance in Ontario.

This also tells us that the role of the Bloc Québécois will be irrelevant in deciding who will reside at 24 Sussex. The Bloc is strong only if the Liberals are weak and the Conservatives are unable to capitalize on it. Jack Layton's NDP, instead, will play a big role in urban areas at the expense of the Liberals in Ontario and of the Conservatives in some Quebec ridings.

So let's go back to the four ingredients and see how Liberals and Conservatives are faring in Ontario.

Money is not a determining factor because both have enough resources – the Tories from the top, with a well-loaded central campaign; the Liberals from the bottom, with very well-funded riding associations.

Organization is the Achilles heel of the Conservatives. The Liberal machine is much stronger, with the federal and provincial wings highly integrated.

Tories can make up the difference when it comes to leadership. Public confidence in Harper is also reinforced by Ontarians' mistrust of Dion. In this province it's fair to say that Harper is a leader without a party, while the Liberals are a party without a leader.

In terms of issues, there is only one: the economy. Dion's carbon tax/green shift proposal has been received, at best, with a yawn.

Of course, if the economy worsens, that means problems for Harper. But the Prime Minister has an unexpected ally in defending the economic record in Ontario: Dalton McGuinty. In the last two months, I have interviewed the premier and the Prime Minister and both said that we shouldn't be misled by the poor results of the auto industry. Sources close to Queen's Park told me this week that industries such as mining, steel, housing, agriculture and finance are strong and it wouldn't be fair to predict doom and gloom only because we compare them with booming economies like the ones in B.C. and Alberta.

Surprisingly, the only minister not in tune with this federal-provincial duet is Jim Flaherty, the federal minister of finance. This speaks volumes about the lack of Conservative strategy in Ontario.

However, even if the economic problems are exaggerated, the potential for a disaster is there and the scare caused by people losing jobs is real. Ontarians missed an opportunity to talk about the future of their economy during the provincial election by focusing on the peripheral issue of religious school funding. They won't let politicians off the hook so easily again. As James Carville would say, this time "It's the economy, stupid."