The year 2012 is poised to go down as the quietest in federal politics in a decade.
The selection of a new NDP leader and the formal launch of the Liberal leadership contest simply did not compete with the suspense that attended the Alberta and Quebec elections; the abrupt resignation of Ontario’s premier, or the storms that engulfed the governments of Toronto and Montreal.
If there was a game-changer in federal politics this year, it has yet to register with distracted voters.
Year-end polls paint a federal picture whose dynamics are fundamentally unchanged from the same period a year ago and not substantially different from the day after the last federal election.
But a federal voting intention picture devoid of dramatic swings in public opinion is not one that is devoid of meaning. Almost halfway through its first majority mandate, Stephen Harper’s government is in better shape in voting intentions that Brian Mulroney’s was at the same point in his two mandates.
Predictions that this Conservative majority government would quickly lose its audience have not panned out. But Harper’s mandate remains more tentative than those handed to Jean Chrétien in the 1990s. The Liberals spent most of their last decade in power in clear majority territory.
Despite enjoying the similar luxury of a divided opposition, the ruling Conservatives are more likely to hover in the grey zone between majority and minority support than to climb above the majority threshold.
That could be a reflection on the more remote than average connection between the current prime minister and the electorate or on the retail politics that his party practices. But Harper also faces a more credible opposition than Chrétien did.
Among the main federal parties, the NDP faced the tallest post-election order in 2011.
Cast in an unfamiliar front-line role, equipped with a caucus dominated by MPs with very little history in the party and without the services of the leader who had made it happen, its election breakthrough featured many of the ingredients of a poisoned chalice.
A year and a half later, polls suggest the NDP has weathered the transition from Jack Layton to Thomas Mulcair and from third party to official Opposition.
Moreover, the Quebec polls show no evidence that the election of a sovereigntist government is translating into a significant improvement in the fortunes of the Bloc Québécois. That’s good news for the NDP, whose main opponent in the next election will be the BQ.
Justin Trudeau made a splash when he entered a shallow Liberal leadership pool this fall. But the year-end numbers suggest that the fundamental equation that Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff failed to solve remains intact. The presence of a rock star in the Liberal leadership lineup cannot on its own make up for a party’s glaring absence in so many regions of the country.
With a federal election more than two years away, offering a take on its outcome is a mug’s game — akin to predicting next summer’s weather. In theory, it is possible to chart a 2015 path to power for the three main parties.
Harper’s is the most obvious as he is already walking it. But for any government, the 10-year mark in power is the equivalent of the seven-year marriage itch. In the next election, the Conservatives will be seeking to extend their decade in power by four more years.
To different degrees, British Columbia and Quebec are the ground zero of popular discontent with the Conservatives these days. As it happens, the NDP is the dominant opposition party in both of them. With a strong Ontario ground game, Mulcair could build on that axis to eke out a minority mandate in 2015.
Finally, only those who learned nothing from Layton’s rags to riches course in Quebec in the 2011 election will dismiss out of hand the possibility that the Liberals could surf back to power on a similar kind of wave.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.