Column: Time to seduce

Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau all face major challenges heading into this federal election year

by Tim Harper

Take a bow, hard-working taxpayer.

This is your year.

You will be known by your moniker, to be repeated over and over by your federal government.

You will be known by the indignities visited upon you, according to our opposition parties.

You will be known by the incessant advertising aimed at you and the fealty paid to you by your federal representative, even if his or her identity will have been, for many of you, heretofore a mystery.

All three federal parties will pay homage to you, gearing every policy to you, your children, your cable choices, your wireless packages, your gym membership, your children’s children, the roads you travel, the bridges you cross, the air you breathe.

They will promise to keep your neighbourhoods safe, your country safe, your wallet safe and your job safe.

They will promise to protect you from terrorists, the scourge of drugs and, in the case of your government, inexperienced leaders.

If you are a war veteran, you will receive a lot of attention this year. As you should.

All they want is your vote.

There are few certainties to 2015, but we know this.

You will have your chance to vote in a federal election.

The late winter and early spring will be both the best of times and potentially the worst of times for Stephen Harper’s government.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will have to deliver on that worst of post-honeymoon demands: I like you, but now what are you going to do for me?

Tom Mulcair will have to stop bailing water from the good ship New Democrat long enough to turn around an opposition bleeding MPs, morale and confidence.

Which brings us to the when and what – when will you vote and what could define the ballot?

The election is scheduled for Oct. 19 and, in a year-end interview with the CBC, Harper indicated that fixed date will be election day – while leaving just enough of a sliver of doubt to fuel those who believe we could be voting in the spring, following a federal budget and before looming danger.

It should be a triple-E election – fought on the economy, energy policy and the environment – but before we get there, here is how it seems the year will shake out.

Shortly after the Commons reconvenes in late January, Finance Minister Joe Oliver will table his government’s pre-election budget.

The surplus has been largely drained already by the government’s capped form of income-splitting and enhanced child-care benefit payments, cheques ready to hit mailboxes (including six months of retroactive payments) in July, just weeks before the writ drops on an October election.

But this doesn’t look as advantageous as it did before the price of oil plummeted or the Bank of Canada again raised alarms about the level of personal debt or warned of overvalued homes.

The Canadian economy will merely chug, not soar, analysts say, but an uptick in U.S. fortunes could give this country a much-needed tailwind.

Oliver and Harper swear the price of oil will not deter them from balancing the budget, but there are two outstanding promises which were dependent on balanced books – doubling the tax-free savings account limit and an adult fitness tax credit – which the government has not yet moved on.

Essentially, Harper will dare Mulcair and Trudeau to pledge to cancel his targeted tax breaks on the campaign trail to pay for their promises.

Mulcair wants to establish a national daycare program, and Trudeau has promised to spend more broadly on the middle class.

Whatever good will the budget engenders, however, could be short-lived.

By the end of March, Auditor General Michael Ferguson is expected to release a report on Senate spending that is causing nervousness in the upper chamber and is expected to bring the Senate back into the forefront of the Canadian political discussion.

Everything from postage stamps to lunches, from Wi-Fi use to office stationery, is being scrutinized.

The new Senate speaker, Pierre-Claude Nolin, told reporters recently that “the big stories” are behind the institution, but Ottawa whispers suggest otherwise.

Days after that, Mike Duffy is due in court to face 31 fraud-related charges. The suspended senator and former journalist maintains his innocence and says he looks forward to clearing his name.

Even if he can’t, there is every reason to believe he will use many of his 41 allotted court days to drag Harper and his office along for a ride that a prime minister seeking re-election will not want, even if Harper himself is not called to testify.

If there is a plea deal in the works, there is no indication of it yet.

There is also no indication Duffy’s health will be a factor. Those close to him say, despite a history of heart trouble, the disgraced senator has lost weight and is leading a disciplined lifestyle.

This year will also be the year of the pipeline and, with it, the promise that the environment will be the sleeper issue of the year.

First up for resolution is the Keystone XL, which would transport Canadian bitumen from Alberta to the American Gulf Coast and has drawn the increasing scorn of U.S. President Barack Obama.

But the Congressional roster has changed in Washington with pro-Keystone Republicans in charge of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the GOP leadership has signalled the pipeline is its first order of business in 2015.

A Nebraska court decision must still pave the way for construction and Obama still wields the veto pen, but the possibility that he will use Keystone approval as a tradeoff for something he needs from a hostile Congress grows immeasurably this year.

A pre-election gift could be in the offing for Harper, regardless of the price of oil.

A battle looms over the east-west pipeline in this country and it could turn Trudeau into a political pretzel with Liberal governments in Atlantic Canada firmly behind the project but Liberal governments in central Canada putting conditions on their approval.

That project has the backing of Mulcair, but it appears the giant Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline essentially has the backing of no one.

In rubber-stamping a National Energy Board decision that allows construction but is laden with 209 time-consuming conditions, the Harper government was silent. Not one of them strode to a camera to back the decision.

Then, by year’s end came a change in tone on pipelines from the Conservatives, first by Industry Minister James Moore, then Harper himself.

They now stand at arm’s length from these projects, saying approval is up to independent boards and the private sector – a world away from Harper’s once-vocal backing of Gateway as a “national priority.”

The Harper government is also having more difficulty defending its climate position and increasingly looks like an outlier in the global community.

Arguments about a “job-killing carbon tax” are well past their best-before debate, and Harper even mused about the merit of Alberta’s carbon-pricing system in the CBC interview.

We are past the days of StÈphane Dion being demonized for an environmental platform, and there is an opening in this upcoming campaign for a leader who will boldly signal climate change action while respecting jobs that energy and resource extraction support.

If none of the three mainstream parties will be that bold, then the Greens under Elizabeth May will encroach on their long-held turf.

Harper, Trudeau and Mulcair all face major challenges.

The prime minister will be bucking an inevitable taste for change in this country as he seeks another mandate after nearly a decade in office.

Trudeau will be playing on that thirst for change but his success so far, based as it is on personal style, youth and a fresh approach to the political game, will be sorely tested as he is viewed more as a potential prime minister and Mulcair and Harper try to squeeze him from the left and right.

Mulcair must guard against a return to the traditional political axis in this country.

As the calendar turns he leads a caucus that is increasingly frustrated that their work in opposition is not being rewarded in public support. He has lost eight MPs since he became leader, to defections, resignation and a suspension.

The campaign will largely play out in central Canada

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne will need to maintain her current popularity because a mid-term dive, common to almost all governments, could hurt Trudeau.

Next door in Quebec, Trudeau could also be collateral damage in Premier Philippe Couillard’s ongoing austerity binge, but Mulcair’s Quebec base will be tested should Pierre Karl PÈladeau win the Parti QuÈbÈcois leadership in May and bring the matter of sovereignty – again – back into mainstream Quebec debate.

There is another word which could again move to the forefront in politics in 2015, and this time the challenge for Trudeau and Mulcair will be to ensure “coalition” does not become a dirty word but regains its position as a legitimate electoral outcome in our democracy.

Mulcair and Trudeau don’t like each other much right now.

But proximity to power could render many recent perceived wrongs merely distant memories.

National Affairs columnist Tim Harper usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter: @nutgraf1

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