Year of political change

If our fixed election date holds, we’re a year from a trip to the federal polls. It’s a good time to remember what changes a single year can bring. Here are five storylines that can upend any federal prognostications over the next 12 months.

If our fixed election date holds, we’re a year from a trip to the federal polls.

It’s a good time to remember what changes a single year can bring.

Here are five storylines that can upend any federal prognostications over the next 12 months.

The economy

If he was heading to the polls today, Stephen Harper would have a surplus estimated at $56 billion over the next five years burning a hole in his pocket.

Unemployment is at its lowest level in almost six years, inflation is manageable, Canadians look at the values of their homes and feel wealthy.

Harper has already announced an enhanced tax credit for parents with children in sports programs and a cut to employment insurance premiums. He has also promised an adult fitness tax credit and will double the annual contribution limit for tax-free savings accounts.

He will campaign on the jobs flowing from trade deals, even if they are inflated estimates from a deal yet to be ratified. But a promised income-splitting program doesn’t look like a winner because of its expense and the fact that the tiny minority of Canadians who would benefit already largely vote Conservative.

A burst real estate bubble could end the sense of economic comfort and turn the issue to household debt. Plunging oil prices have blown a hole in many portfolios and may hamper the government’s ability to deliver on its economic vision.

The job numbers are illusory. Much of the growth is in part-time and self-employed work and youth unemployment remains stubbornly high.

Downturns from China to Germany are out of Harper’s control but will have an impact here.

If the fundamentals of the economy remain strong, other issues can become white noise. But without that sense of economic security, a campaign can drive into a ditch in a hurry.

World events

A year ago, neither Ebola nor the Islamic State was on our radar.

Ukraine was still a month away from street demonstrations protesting President Viktor Yanukovych’s embrace of Russia over the European Union, Vladimir Putin’s adventurism had not yet begun and there was a wobbly stability in the Middle East.

Foreign policy doesn’t win many domestic votes, but appearing statesmanlike on the world stage does, a card only Harper can play.

A year from now, we could be dealing with anything from upheaval in Hong Kong to a health epidemic which has spread to South Asia or to something no one can yet see.

Justin Trudeau’s

uncertain journey

After a honeymoon period that lasted longer than some marriages, gravity is pulling the Liberal leader back into political re-entry.

He has had 18 months to grow into his job but has so far ceded much of the policy field to Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, has been the victim of too many self-imposed wounds and doesn’t look ready for prime time. Trudeau is being squeezed by the two more experienced leaders and reports that the Conservative attacks on the Liberal leader have backfired could prove premature the closer we get to voting day. He is also going to face much tougher scrutiny from a more skeptical press gallery. Balanced babies and fawning profiles won’t put him over the top.

Can he get his tongue and brain in sync?

The (subtle) rebranding

of Mulcair

The opposition leader is still perceived (to the point he is perceived at all) as too much of an old-style Harper politician, but brings substance to the race and the party strategy of rolling out policy a year before a vote could be a boon to NDP fortunes.

Mulcair has a year to find a sweet spot between a style-driven Trudeau and the stolid, vanilla and mean-spirited Harper style.

Trudeau is giving him room to grow.

Will Canadians give him a good, hard look?

A referendum on Harper

If the opposition leaders can successfully make Harper the campaign issue, the dynamics will radically change.

Either could win by not being Harper, and either would look fresh and progressive when up against a man who, after a combative 10-year hold on power, asks for another four.

If a collective Canadian yearning for change takes hold, then tax breaks, a strong economy or good grades on the world stage won’t matter.

And that is without even considering other wild cards — the Mike Duffy trial, a major environmental mishap, a terror attack on this country, a setback in the allied effort against the Islamic State, an Ebola outbreak here, a promise by Harper to step aside if he is re-elected, coalition talk or more First Nations protests.

A year is a long time.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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