Don't bet on elections for this fall

Neither provincial nor federal vote is in the cards anytime soon

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It being the very end of the dog days of August, there's been no shortage of speculation about fall elections in both Quebec and Ottawa.

Forget it. The game isn't on, at either level.

Fall election talk in Quebec has been triggered by two official precincts - Elections Quebec, which has been doing due diligence on polling stations in schools and places of worship; and the television consortium that provides pool coverage from remote locations on election night.

Both need to be ready to go, in the event of. Election talk in Quebec has been fuelled by Jean Charest's rebound in the polls, to the point where he might consider dropping a writ this fall after only 31/2 years in office, rather than waiting until the normal four-year cycle comes around next spring.

Considering where he's been, as low as the mid-20s in polls only a year ago, Charest's Liberals have recovered nicely to the mid-30s in polls over the summer. Charest's hope is to grow to the high-30s by fall, and to the threshold of the low 40s, re-election territory, by next spring.

Only if he grows too fast would he even consider calling an election too soon. The pretext would be that he needed a mandate to negotiate an agreement on the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and Quebec.

This is a highly unlikely scenario. Charest still has high dissatisfaction numbers among francophone voters and he knows perfectly well what happened to Robert Bourassa in similar circumstances in 1976, when he called an early election on the flimsy excuse that he needed a mandate to negotiate constitutional change with Pierre Trudeau. The rest is history.

Charest is looking to a fall session of the legislature with Andre Boisclair as his opposite number in the Salon Bleu, and the hope of striking a deal with Stephen Harper on the fiscal imbalance, a deal both need to advance their prospects of winning in Quebec, before a good- news budget in the spring session as the trigger to an election.

That's the game, and the timeline, in Quebec. It's all in Charest's head. And that's where he's at. Elections Quebec and the TV consortium need to be ready, but the one guy who can give them a heads-up isn't sending any signals.

Similarly, in Ottawa, there has been a late summer flurry of election talk because Prime Minister Harper said last week he would be presenting the softwood-lumber deal with the U.S. to the House as a question of confidence.

This has led to a great deal of testosterone talk, with Harper daring the Liberals and NDP to defeat the government, and the Liberals saying they won't be talked in from the ledge. Yeah, right. They're going to force an election before their leadership convention in December? I don't think so.

More to the point, the Bloc Quebecois doesn't think so.

Quebec, which accounts for about 25 per cent of softwood- lumber exports to the U.S., supports the deal. Guy Chevrette, head of the industry association in Quebec, supports the deal. If Quebec, and a former PQ minister representing producers, support it, you can be sure that Gilles Duceppe does.

This is the dance part of the deal. Harper would never have declared it was a question of confidence if he didn't know he had the support of the Bloc Quebecois. He doesn't even need this assurance from Duceppe. If Quebec is in, and if its softwood producers are in, Duceppe is in. While the prime minister should have consulted Duceppe as a courtesy, he doesn't need his help to do the math. The Conservatives and the Bloc constitute a big majority, to the undoubted relief of both the Liberals and the NDP.

Whew!

The Liberals can look ahead to their convention in Montreal in December, setting their new leader up to a competitive election in 2007. The NDP can denounce the softwood deal in British Columbia, a key constituency for them, especially in the forest outside Vancouver.

But the fact remains that the governments of B.C., Quebec and Ontario, which account for 90 per cent of softwood exports to the U.S., support the deal. As does most of the industry in the three key exporting provinces.

Fall election? Game off.

 
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