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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

London North Centre --PM's ploy is so fiendish it just might work- Globe& Mail

PM's ploy is so fiendish it just might work

JOHN IBBITSON
From Tuesday October 24, 2006 Globe and Mail

Liberal chagrin at Stephen Harper's decision to call by-elections in Montreal and London for Nov. 27 is truly wonderful to behold.

"Cheap." "Crass." "Cynical." Holding by-elections in the final weeks of another party's leadership campaign. Has the Prime Minister no shame?

This from a party that deliberately called a premature election in the autumn of 2000 for no other reason than that Jean Chrétien wanted to force the new Canadian Alliance leader, Stockwell Day, into a campaign before he had time to prepare for it.

This from a party that brought down Joe Clark's minority Conservative government in 1979 simply because the Liberals realized they had the votes to do it and the Tories were down in the polls.

No, friends, Liberals don't get to accuse anyone of cynical opportunism, ever. That trait is embedded in their DNA.

This is not to say that Mr. Harper isn't capable of crass political calculation. Holding a by-election in London North Centre embarrasses Bob Rae and Gerard Kennedy: Both Liberal leadership candidates are without a seat in Parliament, and so should run, but neither can afford to be distracted from their campaigns by door-knocking in a by-election.

Especially if that seat is vulnerable. And herein lies the real genius in Mr. Harper's calculation.
London North Centre ought to be safe as houses for the Liberals. Veteran MP Joe Fontana took 40 per cent of the popular vote last time out, compared to 30 per cent for the Conservatives and 24 per cent for the NDP.

But Mr. Fontana stepped down to run for mayor of London (where he is not doing at all well), and a most surprising candidate is seeking the nomination for the Conservatives.

Dianne Haskett was a very popular mayor of London from 1994 to 2000. A devout Christian and social conservative, Ms. Haskett earned national attention when she refused to proclaim Gay and Lesbian Pride Day in her city. For this, she and the city were fined by the Ontario Human Rights Commission during the 1997 municipal election campaign. Ms. Haskett responded by sitting out the rest of the campaign, for which voters rewarded her with a landslide.

In recent years, Ms. Haskett has lived and worked in Washington as a speechwriter and policy adviser. Last week, she reappeared in London, declaring her interest in seeking the nomination for a by-election nobody else knew was imminent. But Ms. Haskett obviously had her sources, for Mr. Harper called the by-election on the weekend.

It's pretty clear that the Prime Minister called the vote, not just to embarrass Mr. Rae and Mr. Kennedy but to give Ms. Haskett an opportunity to contest the by-election while the Liberals are distracted by the leadership race and at their most vulnerable.

A win would show that the Tories are capable of making inroads into middle-class suburban Ontario seats, without which no majority government is possible. But that win won't come easy. London North Centre is home to university professors, students, health-care professionals and other middle-class voters who consider themselves more than usually enlightened. The NDP is also fielding a strong candidate, and Green Leader Elizabeth May has declared her intention to run.

Nonetheless, the opportunities in London were sufficiently tempting for Mr. Harper to endure the hits he is taking over the second by-election call, in Repentigny, a safe Bloc Québécois seat in the Montreal area. The opposition rightly argues that Public Works Minister Michael Fortier, whom Mr. Harper promoted to the Senate as a means of getting him into the cabinet, should run in that by-election. But since he'd lose, you can forget about that.

So the race to watch is London North Centre. A win would suggest the Conservatives are playing better in Southern Ontario than the polls report, even — or perhaps especially — with a social-conservative candidate. And if the Tories lose — well, it was never their riding to start with.

Cheap. Crass. Cynical. And rather clever.

jibbitson@globeandmail.com

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