The holidays are over (thankfully), but one task remains; the crystal-ball column. My record of New Year’s sooth-saying has been mixed, it’s fair to say. Last year’s performance, sadly, was no different.
First prediction: On Dec. 30, 2014 I wrote “there will be no spring election. The PM will wait for the fixed date in October, as promised, despite his party’s recent uptick in the polls, and despite the apparent allure of getting the campaign out of the way ahead of the much-anticipated trail of suspended former Conservative senator Mike Duffy, to begin in April.”
My reasoning was that then-prime minister Stephen Harper had promised unequivocally to abide by the fixed-election date, would not want to be seen to violate this promise for crass political purposes and — perhaps most importantly — enjoyed governing. Why would he risk getting the heave-ho before he had to? I had also heard from Conservative sources that the war drums were not beating in the ridings, as they would have had a spring election been imminent.
Result: Bingo. A-plus. Even a blind squirrel, as former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously noted, finds a nut now and then. Harper waited, of course, which turned out rather badly for his party and his personal goal of squashing the upstart Justin Trudeau, now the Prime Minister.
Conservatives reclining around their hearths this winter, grinding their teeth and cursing Trudeau’s name, will speculate about what might have happened had Harper opted for a February-March campaign lasting five weeks, pre-empting Duffy and before the Liberals got a chance to find their footing. Possibly, given the level of fatigue with the ancien regime that emerged last October, the outcome would have been no different. We’ll never know.
Second prediction: “When the election does come,” I wrote, “the Conservatives will win it, narrowly, with a minority. The Trudeau Liberals will more than double their seat count, from the current 35, and replace the New Democrats as the Official Opposition. But there will be no immediate unseating of the Harper government by a Liberal-NDP coalition …”
Result: Buzzer sounds. D-minus! It seemed a safe bet to make; too safe, as it turned out. The thrust of much speculation late in 2014 – whether the Liberal and New Democratic parties would join forces to unseat Harper – was superseded by the Liberal wave, resulting in 184 Grit seats. In the end it came down to the desire for change, a rejection of identity politics, and Trudeau’s exceeding expectations in five TV debates. It will be some time, one suspects, before Canada’s Tories again build an electoral strategy largely on running down an opposing leader.
Third prediction: Predicated on my expectation of a modest Liberal resurgence, I wrote a year ago that “leadership machinations will begin in earnest within the Conservative and New Democrat camps.”
Result: So-so. B-minus, anyone? Harper, of course, is now haunting his local Chapters bookstore, taking selfies in Las Vegas and rediscovering the blessed non-pressure of being an ordinary Member of Parliament. The Conservatives are on the leadership hunt, but on an extended two-year timeline, with interim leader Rona Ambrose minding the store till then. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair faces a leadership review at his party’s convention in April, the outcome of which is uncertain.
Now, on to 2016. Here goes.
1. Mulcair will remain NDP boss. The Liberal custom, established by inglorious precedent, is to drag each losing leader out behind the barn and send him to the afterlife with a curt thank-you. New Democrats have a tradition of sticking with leaders through several election cycles. They are also, to state the obvious, accustomed to not winning. Mulcair is at his best in the House of Commons. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to shine as the Trudeau Liberals lose their baby teeth.
2. Trudeau and his cabinet will reverse course on a couple of major policy files early in 2016. The first will be their pledge to withdraw Canadian CF-18 fighters from the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The second will be their apparent determination to reform Canada’s electoral system without a referendum. In the first case the flip-flop will be attributed to changing circumstances on the ground; in the second case, to political necessity. In both cases, they will emerge politically better off as a result, despite sustaining short-term damage due to the broken promises.
3. Speaking of which: The federal deficit in the first Trudeau-era budget, expected in February, will be just under $20 billion — roughly twice what was pledged in the recent campaign.
4. Stephen Harper will make several public appearances in which he reveals both a human side and a self-deprecating sense of humour, causing Conservatives to shake their heads and wonder (again) at what might have been.
5. Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination and Hillary Clinton the U.S. Presidency. But it will be a very near-run thing.