It used to be that Federal Elections were generally called when the current ruling party felt that major issues of the day dictated that they renew their mandate from the people. Elections have been called as plebiscites on such things as Free Trade, Conscription, and on the outcomes of inquiries. Under the new fixed election date laws, however (and assuming that the ruling party actually decides to respect that law), elections have become something to be planned for. As such, the 2015 Federal Election is the first where Canadian Federal Parties have advance knowledge of the polling date, and have time to try and pre-frame the issues an the debate to their advantage.
Harper, the tactician, can already be seen to be looking ahead to the next campaign. After a disastrous start to the year, with his newly minted cabinet it is widely expected that his first order of business after the summer break will be to prorogue Parliament and reset the agenda with a new Throne Speech. The question remains on what issues he feels he has the best chance at success.
Popular wisdom states that it is always the economy, however on that his performance is beginning to look stale. Despite all promises, the deficit gap continues to widen and employment remains stagnant – unless of course you are a temporary foreign worker in which case jobs will be found for you. Besides, an economic policy of “For gosh sake Flaherty – don’t touch anything Paul Martin got rolling” is hardly a leadership plus. Their supposed role as champions for the Canadian Military likewise fails the sniff test after the F35 cost debacle, which the Auditor General has since determined was known by cabinet prior to the last elecion despite their protests to the contrary, with every other major procurement from ships to helicopters mired in overruns and disarray, and given the push-back on changes to benefits for wounded vets leading to this government actually telling veterans to vote another Party if they dont like their reduced benefits.
The law and order platform has been selling well to the Conservative base, although it is hard to square Billions in additional costs with no appreciable change to the already downward trend of crime in Canada – no matter how hard they try to do so. And on that matter, Liberal leader Trudeau has set up a direct challenge where the voters will get to chose between legalization of marijuana versus Harper’s treating pot dealers more harshly than pedophiles. Indeed, on this single issue Trudeau has managed to place the Liberal Party even further to the left than the NDP who only favour decriminalization for marijuana (at least, that is the latest finessing of Mulcair’s unclear opinion) and so threatens to bleed a good chunk of the youth vote away from Mulcair.
Speaking of Mulcair, it is surprising to note that the NDP actually beats out the Conservatives this past year on advertising expenditures as they moved boldly to define their leader before the Conservatives did at a cost of almost $2 Million. Frankly, this depletion of their war chest may have been unnecessary given the Conservatives incredible lack of any attempt to do anything to define the NDP leader. At best, they dismissed him. The Conservatives feel that, given the NDP has never once won power and given the charisma gap between Thomas and Justin that their dollars are best dedicated to attacking who they perceive their biggest threat to be, and the Leader of the Opposition is not it.
So what then, will Harper choose as wedge issues to frame for the 2015 debate? Labour, and specifically union labour, is one that serves multiple purposes. First, demolishing unions is Conservative bread and butter. Second, putting unions in the crosshairs will keep union members home with their traditional champions the NDP rather than risking soft union support crossing over to Trudeau on other issues. And third, it is just too easy to hold public servants up as fodder for disdain given the public’s general dislike of bureaucracy, and by making the public service the public target it keeps the debate on people everyone loves to hate rather than on union memberships in general.
And how will this be accomplished? For starters, the expected prorogue in September will wipe the legislative slate clean. This means that Bill C-337, a union-related Bill so badly written that even Conservatives in the Senate couldn’t stomach it, will simply disappear to be reintroduced at an opportune time to force politicians to vote either pro- or anti-union. Second, if you think that the ongoing labour disputes with public servants like the diplomats is bad, just wait until next year when 17 more public service contracts come up for renegotiation. This includes the contract with the 70,000 civil servants who provide front-line services such as processing Employment Insurance and Canada Pension Plan claims. It is sure easy to paint the public service as the problem when people are waiting for cheques, and it is easy to make that happen simply by being as difficult as possible to negotiate with.
This debate also serves to keep discussion on the public service away from this government’s disastrous handling of it and instead to focus on their easy use as a general target. It is easier to play to the stereotypes that feed the dislike of public servants tan to explain why, under Harper, the bureaucracy at the RCMP has grown to where every fourth employee is a paper-pusher who does nothing to provide actual police services to the public. And Harper does not want the debate on how his cuts have negatively affected services, which is why entering into labour disputes is a preferable option. It is easy to blame a person on strike for failure to deliver services rather than admit that they have damaged the government’s ability to deliver those services already – and especially easy if they can stonewall the Parliamentary Budget Office’s attempts to evaluate how cutbacks are affecting service delivery until job actions are underway.
And the longer job actions go on, this government knows that public antipathy will be pointed towards the people on strike rather than those making it impossible for a deal to be struck to allow them back to work. This can already be seen in the bad-faith dealings with current negotiations as the government flip-flops on accepting deals they have already stated their agreement with.
No, 2015 will likely not be a good year to be a public servant as their jobs will toyed with to gain political points in an election year. And if you expect to need to apply for OAS or CPP in 2015, well, it might serve you well to get that application in early lest you become a pawn in the games of power too. For Trudeau, the trick will be to find a middle ground that appeals to both union rank and file and to the average Canadian too, and to do this he needs to ensure that the focus is kept on what matters to Canadians when it comes to their government, and that is to be able to receive as efficiently as possible the services that their tax dollars are paying for.