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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.
But a federal voting intention picture devoid of dramatic swings in public opinion is not one that is devoid of meaning.
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.
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.
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.