Monday, August 31, 2009

To go, or not to go: that is the question

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

Michael Ignatieff, playing the role of Hamlet, is pondering such a question in Sudbury, where a Liberal pow-wow is being held.

As long as the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois vote along with him, Ignatieff will have the chance to topple the Conservative government at the end of September, sending us to the poll booths in early November. No Christmas, no summer, no Olympics, no Kwanzaa to use as an excuse for not holding an election. The autumn is the perfect campaign season. The weather is good, and people are returning to the normal habits of their lives. Plenty of opportunity to pay attention to an election and do that oh-so-burdensome task of taking a few minutes out of your day (and remember, legally your employer is required to give you the time) to vote.

The "Canadians don't want an election" trope can just as easily be translated as "Canadians can't be arsed to care". Canadians will never want an election, and no one seems to realise that those who say they don't want an election are mostly those who won't vote anyway. Let those of us who do care vote, and settle this "election or no election" debate for another year or two, at least. And, in any case, people forget about why the election was called five days in.

And, let's face it. This debate is in large part caused by the unnatural election of 2008. Voter turnout was low - so low that the incumbent government was given a second mandate and larger parliamentary representation while still earning fewer votes than they did in the election that brought them to power. The Liberals had a very weak party leader who led them to one of their worst electoral performances in history. The election almost requires a do-over.

But Michael Ignatieff is mulling whether he should launch the campaign this fall. From my perspective, I'm not sure there is any strong argument against doing so.

Should the Liberals wait for better polling numbers? No one knows how long that would take, or what "better" actually means. In the meantime, the NDP and Bloc would gleefully force Ignatieff into a position of propping up the Tory government. He might even find himself in an election at a time of Stephen Harper's choosing. Harper chose well last year, and almost got himself a majority.

Are elections expensive? Yes. But not outrageously so. A few hundred million dollars is just a drop in the bucket of the federal budget, and will give some temporary relief to the unemployed, as Elections Canada will be hiring. It will also force the parties to spend the taxpayer dollars they've been stockpiling, pumping that money back into the economy - well over 50 million dollars worth of it.

Do the Liberals have a lot to lose? Not really. They have so much more to gain. Ignatieff could win the election and become Prime Minister. He could finish a strong-enough second to work out some governing arrangement with the NDP. But even if he loses he will be in a better position than he is in right now. With the numbers we've seen, he's virtually guaranteed an extra 25 MPs. That means bigger clout in Parliament and greater opportunities for twisting the screws on the Tories with the help of the NDP and the Bloc. It means more representation on committees. It means more funding from the per-vote subsidy. It means a larger staff, both because of the increase in funding and the increase in MPs.

It means being in a better position to win the next election, rather than starting at the disadvantage in which the Liberal leader currently finds himself.