The distinguishing feature of the so far undistinguished 2011 federal campaign has been the virtual hijacking of the policy debate by post-election considerations.
From Day One, a unique equation has been in the subtext of this election, and it is that the absence of change at the ballot box could result in big changes on the political and parliamentary landscape.
In this spirit, the next-to-last week of the campaign has already produced questions about front-running Stephen Harper’s future in politics and suggestions that the election of an unchanged Parliament could herald a full-fledged recast of the opposition’s leadership.
By far the most immediate post-election consideration has to do with the governing variations that could result from the May 2 ballot.
Over the course of an interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge earlier this week, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff provided fodder for the conversation he had so painstakingly tried to avoid since the election call.
Ignatieff was asked what would happen if a freshly re-elected Conservative minority government failed to secure the confidence of the House of Commons.
He replied that the onus would be on him — presuming that he was still the leader of the official Opposition — to see whether he could find enough common ground with the other parties to offer himself up as prime minister.
On the same television set on Monday, NDP Leader Jack Layton offered an identical answer.
They are only stating the obvious.
Common sense and parliamentary practice both suggest a conscientious governor general would want to determine if there is no alternative government at hand before plunging the country into another election.
For the record, an equally conscientious defeated prime minister would — as Ontario’s Frank Miller did in 1985 — advise the Queen’s representative to look for such an alternative.
Harper has spent the campaign hammering the message that nothing short of a majority victory will enable his party to run a third consecutive government. He seized on Ignatieff’s CBC comments to bolster that case.
The Conservatives still have a bit more than a week to bridge the gap to a majority. But what if it continues to elude them?
Harper suggested again this week it would not even be worth trying to make another minority government work. That prediction rests on nothing more solid than overheated election rhetoric but it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What is certain is that if Harper secured another minority government and continued to insist — as he is suggesting he would — on putting no water in his wine, he could be replaced much more expeditiously than at the time of the 2008 parliamentary crisis.
By turning the campaign into a plebiscite on a Conservative majority government, Harper has also put the alternative squarely on the ballot: that of a government by the three opposition parties.
A final note: In the CBC interview, Ignatieff declined to set a floor of seats below which he would find it impractical to consider bidding for a government role for his party.
In 2008, it was the Liberal numerical weakness that brought Stéphane Dion to the table of a coalition with the NDP and the Bloc — a post-election avenue Ignatieff has pre-emptively forsaken.
In the scenario of an election result that more or less replicates the last Parliament, the best substitute government Ignatieff could offer would be weaker than the coalition he refused to head in 2008 in the name of the national interest.
To recap, Harper maintains that if he once again comes out on May 2 with almost twice as many MPs as his closest opponent, he won’t be able to make Parliament work, while Ignatieff is suggesting he could run the country with less than a quarter of the seats in the Commons.
You get to decide what, if anything, is wrong with either picture.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for The Toronto Star.