An election? Sez who?

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My guess is that the election will come only when Paul Martin is ready for it, with the guiding calculation being that Bloc support is declining in Quebec.

Here we go again. The headlines flare momentarily in what seems like a dead certainty — in this case, impending election — then fizzle off into ambiguity. What does it mean?

Remember a couple of years ago when it was common and incontrovertible wisdom that Paul Martin, with up to 80 per cent approval in the polls at one point, was headed for a “coronation”? Then the sponsorship scandal broke and he was “toast”? Then last spring, for weeks on end, the trumpeting of the “inevitable” election?

I never believed any of it at the time, and I'm still seized with doubt that we're going to have an election before Christmas, after Christmas, this spring or whenever. Although by definition, an election gets more likely as time goes on, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Martin government still there a year from now, still mired in some scandal or other, still under the threat of being brought down.

If you want some insight into what's going on, keep your eye on NDP Leader Jack Layton, possessor of an extremely delicate balance of power. Of all the federal party leaders, Layton is the very embodiment of the dilemma of the Canadian electorate as he twists himself into a pretzel to essentially not force an election. Layton is basically you and me.

The problem has several prongs.

First, if you bring down the Liberals, what's the alternative? If the government fell now on the basis of the sponsorship scandal, toppled by the argument that it had lost the moral authority to rule, I can virtually guarantee that by the time the election came around in a few weeks, the scandals would be yesterday's story and the big questions would be: Who are the Tories? What are they offering? What's their secret agenda? Are they still the Alberta-dominated Canadian Alliance? What does party leader Stephen Harper stand for?

The electorate's bewilderment is nowhere more evident than in the polls. The first polls after the Gomery report showed the Liberals plunging, with one even showing the Tories marginally ahead. The very next one, a few days later, showed the Liberals bouncing back. This happened last spring, too. It's as though as soon as the Conservatives look like they could indeed form even a minority government, a substantial part of the electorate recoils in horror.

This recoiling is not, in my view, mainly because of fear of Conservative policy, secret neo-con agendas, party divisions, Stephen Harper's woodenness or what-have-you. Rather, it's because a Conservative government would have no representation in Quebec and would, by definition, not be a national government. Indeed, with the Bloc Québécois likely sweeping Quebec, the appearance would be that a virtual separatism has already occurred, the Tory government's very existence being dependent on “negotiating” — a loaded word in Quebec separatist circles — with the Bloc.

This queasiness, in fact, extends to the Liberals as well if an election were called now, which is one of the reasons why all voices calling for the “corrupt” Liberals to be turfed out are failing ones, with a catch in the throat. The Liberals might well “win” the election, but they too might be so reduced in Quebec as to not look like a national government either.

In fact, a Liberal (minority) victory is the most likely outcome, further kneecapping the logic of rushing to have an election which would change nothing except to reinforce the Bloc (which, remember, was so reduced as to be supposedly on the brink of extinction before the sponsorship scandal erupted).

Thus, in the end, the posing and posturing around the House of Commons is a dodge. Deep down, no one wants an election all that fast — even the Conservatives are half-hearted. Far from an election soon, my suspicion is that the prime minister will even find a way out of his promise to have an election shortly after the final Gomery report on the sponsorship scandal, with the NDP and Tories complaining only formally.

My guess is that the election will come only when Paul Martin is ready for it, with the guiding calculation being that Bloc support is declining in Quebec. That could take some time. Or, depending on the swift turns that Canadian politics can take, no time at all.

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