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Election 2007: The $275 million question

[PoliticsWatch updated 5:45 p.m., March 7, 2007]

OTTAWA — With Parliament on a two-week recess, there continues to be signs in Ottawa and in ridings across the country that yet another federal election is imminent this year.  

The Liberals are involved in a series of housekeeping moves that are reminiscent of pre-election preparation. 

This week, former cabinet ministers  Jim Peterson, Andy Scott and Joe McGuire have joined the ranks of Liberals who won't be running in the next election. In recent weeks former prime minister Paul Martin and former interim leader Bill Graham have made similar decisions.   

On Wednesday, Liberal leadership candidate Bob Rae announced he will be seeking the Liberal nomination in Graham's Toronto Centre riding. 

Meanwhile the Tories, the same party that introduced a fixed-election date bill last year, seem to be the most prepared to go the polls. 

The party will hold a "political training conference" for candidates and campaign managers next weekend in Toronto. Once that is held it is believed that the party would be ready to go to an election within 24 hours notice if necessary. 

The Tories have been running election-like, political attack ads against Liberal leader Stephane Dion for weeks at considerable expense. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made a major announcement worth hundreds of millions of dollars a pop once a week for the past month for a variety of issues designed to move the party to the middle -- money for the provinces to implement Kyoto, AIDS research, development money for Afghanistan and public transit for Toronto. 

The Toronto Star recently reported that the government has made some $10 billion in spending announcements since Dion was elected as Liberal leader in December. 

If that wasn't enough evidence of a pre-writ period, a Globe and Mail story published on Wednesday said Conservative party members in Moncton were told by the party's campaign chair, Doug Finley, to have a candidate nominated by March 23. If they didn't, Finley told them he would drop a candidate on them himself, according to the Globe. 

March 23 is just four days after the federal budget is tabled in the House of Commons. Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said recently that the government would likely face its first confidence vote on the budget after four days of debate in the House. 

Under that scenario the likely date of a confidence vote would be Monday, March 26. That is also the same day Quebecers vote in a provincial election, bringing another barrier to a spring election down. 

While the prime minister repeatedly tells reporters he's "in no hurry to have an election," all signs seem to point to an election coming. 

Harper and the Tories are reportedly awash in cash and up in the polls. Dion is stumbling out of the gate and his party is reportedly seriously worried about having to spend $1 million on television ads to counter the Tory attack ads, The Bloc is expected to be demoralized and tired if the PQ goes down in Quebec. The NDP has problems of its own as it is battling the Greens for the traditional protest vote. 

Harper has just about near perfect conditions to try to capture a majority government.  But if he is perceived to bring down his own government for more power will he pay a political price much like former Ontario premier David Peterson did in 1990? 

Already in this millennium, Elections Canada has spent $749.9 million on three federal elections. A fourth would put it over the billion dollar mark. 

There was strong resistance to all three previous elections. 

Former prime minister Jean Chretien's call of the 2000 election, which cost $200.6 million, came just three years and four months into his second mandate. It has been widely reported that the election was called to take advantage of an unprepared new leader of the opposition, Stockwell Day, and as a way to short-circuit the leadership ambitions of Paul Martin and his supporters. 

The 2004 election called by Martin -- price tag $274.1 million -- was without a doubt expedited by pressure by Martin and his caucus supporters to force Chretien out of office at the earliest possible instance. After that happened, the Conservatives were in no shape for an election having just completed a merger with the Conservatives and a leadership campaign. 

Last year's election, which cost an estimated $275.1 million, happened four months earlier than the date Martin had set earlier in the year and over the Christmas holidays primarily because the three opposition parties hoped to capitalize on the damage done to the Liberals from the just released fact finding report of the Gomery inquiry. 

At the moment, Harper and Green Party leader Elizabeth May -- whose party has no presence in Parliament -- are the only party leaders in Ottawa who are worried about having an election this spring. 

If Harper were to engineer his own defeat, it would be the fourth election in seven years and the third in three years. And all four elections would have been called or forced primarily for  personal political ambition of a handful of men.  

To find the last time a Canadian prime minister served out a minimum of four years in office after an election, one would have to go back 14 years to Brian Mulroney, whose party had more than worn out its welcome and was decimated at the polls in 1993. 

However, this cycle of never ending elections is not unprecedented in Canadian history.  

Between 1962 and 1968, Canada had four federal elections in the span of six years. And between 1962 and 1965 there were also three elections over a three year period. 

In 1962 John Diefenbaker called an election after four years in power with a record majority only to see his majority reduced to a minority because of a sluggish economy. Less than 10 months later the Liberals, led by Lester Pearson, and other opposition parties defeated Diefenbaker on two non-confidence motions related to whether to station U.S. missiles on Canadian soil and were rewarded with a minority government. 

Pearson waited more than 2 years before forcing another election, but made no secret about his desire to have a majority government to implement medicare and the Canadian Pension Plan during the 1965 campaign. Despite Pearson's relative patience the Liberals came two seats short of a majority. 

Harper has been in power for just over a year, less than half the time Pearson had his minority government, but is already having problems with opposition parties watering down his crime bills, killing anti-terrorism measures and passing private members' bills committing the government Kyoto and soon the Kelowna accord. 

Harper and the Conservatives would prefer to have a majority. Is winning a majority possible this spring? Or will Canadians punish the PM if he forces the third election in three years? These are the $275 million questions in Ottawa right now. 

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