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Media Bites: The Eternal Harper Retirement Watch

01/06/2014 12:42 EST | Updated 03/08/2014 05:59 EST

There's a popular site on the net called Stiffs.com. It's this betting thing where you place wagers on which aging celeb you figure's gonna croak in the coming year (2014's current leader: Zsa Zsa Gabor).

The Canadian press has their own version of this game, only they play it with Stephen Harper's career.

One of the unhealthier byproducts of a prime ministerial political system with no term limits is that the media spends an awful lot of time analyzing the vigour and vitality of the current incumbent, eagerly hoping for some subtle sign or signal that his tenure in office will be soon coming to an end. Does he seem bored or listless with the mundane tasks of governing? Is he openly grooming a successor? When's the last time he was seen in public?

In that sense, covering Ottawa is sometimes uncomfortably similar to covering a dottering dictatorship like North Korea or Cuba -- the most pressing question in national politics is always whether the dear leader is going to stay or go, and there's ultimately no way to get a clear answer since the decision will be made solely by the man himself.

Rick Mercer wrote a 2014 prediction the other day that's been shared quite a bit; the tax-funded funnyman is a firm partisan of the "Harper's gonna go" camp.

"Stephen Harper will resign," he begins. "He will go on his own, he will not be pushed. He will, in an elegant statement, say the decision was personal and that he wishes to spend time with his family and future fellow board members of Encana." The rest of the thing consists of a fanciful imagining of the "terrific leadership race" that will follow, which, in trademark Mercer fashion, is neither funny nor politically insightful. Unless you consider the idea of Michael Chong almost getting killed "after seven cars in his driveway explode in massive fireballs" funny. Because he's unpopular with his colleagues, get it?

A more mature analysis comes care of Maclean's Paul Wells, who, as the recent author of an authoritative (yet obnoxious) history of the Harper years -- The Longer I'm Prime Minister -- is a sophisticated master of the subtler arts of Harper-watching. And he's got a choice morsel of Kremlinology to buttress his skepticism of the retirement rumours: the installation of longtime Harper apparatchik Dimitri Soudas as head of the Tory party bureaucracy. It's a move whose purpose, Paul writes, "seemed to be to send a signal: Harper isn't going anywhere."

Not that it would have been a difficult decision for ol' Steve, mind you. Wells notes that PMs only tend to shuffle off when it becomes clear they can't win a third or fourth (or fifth) term at the ballot box, and while Harper's numbers aren't exactly stellar at the moment, the guy "remains in better shape politically than many of his predecessors at midterm" with a stable "29-ish" standing in the polls born from a "loyal and forgiving Conservative base that puts a decent floor under his support" -- no matter what Mike Duffy does. Plus, if watchdog predictions are right and Ottawa's on track to an election-year surplus, the Prime Minister should soon have plenty of "new electoral baubles" to win over that remaining 10 per cent of the public he needs to reassemble the magical 39 per cent coalition that gave the Tories their 2011 majority.

Wells' old buddy Andy Coyne in the National Post, agrees. Not only will the Conservatives be boasting an in-the-black budget by election day, he notes, but "by late 2015 unemployment will most probably have fallen further, possibly to near six per cent." And for the students of trivia amongst us, "since 1957, no majority government has ever been defeated when unemployment was below seven per cent." So why bother abdicating when you've got history on your side?

Of course, much like the first paragraphs of this very column, this latest round of Ottawa gossip is ultimately just so much idle filler in the first empty days of a news-starved new year. The Prime Minister already confirmed several months ago that he plans to seek a fourth term in 2015, and did so using starkly unambiguous language ("yes.") And if that wasn't good enough, just a few days ago he did an interview on Global in which, as the host noted, "the first thing he did was remove any doubt about his political future" by declaring "we have an election scheduled in 2015, and I plan to lead the party in that."

This sort of reality-denying chatter is what gives the Canadian press reason to live, alas. Fanciful what-ifs are vastly more fun to write and read about than dreary real life, particularly if said what-ifs involve the tantalizing possibility that some fresh new character might wind up running the country, and replace the current dullard whose ugly face we've all grown sick of looking at in our morning papers year after year. In that sense, the Harper death-watch has an awful lot in common with the sort of garbage journalism you often see in the States in the run-up to a presidential election -- you know, speculation about really out-there candidates or stupid rumour-mongering that the Prez might fire his VP for someone the punditocracy finds more interesting.

On the other hand, what does it say when "the more rational analysis" involves taking a politician at his word?