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2012 Political Forecast: Anything but Grey

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As we move forward from the Christmas/New Year's season and face another year of political warfare in Canada, it is time to reflect on what awaits us.

Fortunately, this time of the year provides plenty of opportunity to discuss politics, be it at family gatherings, neighbourhood parties, or an evening out with friends. In other words, time to meet folks who don't live and breathe politics on a daily basis and who don't suffer from the tunnel vision that so many connected to political life do.

Harper has earned grudging support because of his work on the economy, but once you move away from that he is on thin ice. Canadians are watching his management style, and the excessive use of closure to ram bills through last December has been noticed by the voting public.

While the Conservatives have explained this away as honouring election promises, that messaging hasn't worked, nor have they convinced the general public that it was the right thing to do. Instead, it is being seen as arrogance and bullying, something the opposition parties will be able to capitalize on if it continues when the House returns. That being said, capitalizing on Conservative missteps requires an effective opposition presence in the House that has not emerged at this point.

The NDP remain in limbo, semi-leaderless and missing some of their best stars. Is anyone other than media types and political junkies following their leadership race? It has to be the most invisible one in recent memory, worse even than those of the PC Party in 1998 and 2003. So far name recognition of the leadership contenders remains very low and this doesn't auger well for their next leader. Should anyone other than Brian Topp or Thomas Mulcair win, they will be faced with the difficult task of raising their profile with the public and getting it to the point where voters see them as future prime ministerial material.

Add in the NDP's dismal performance in the House and you get a sense that public support is temporarily parked. Voter support was Jack Layton support. Unless things change for the NDP their support could bleed away. Nycole Turmel's leadership has been a disaster. She was absolutely the wrong choice at a time when the party needed a strong presence to counter the Conservatives and pounce on their missteps. Someone like Peter Julian who delivers focused questions with passion would have been a better choice.

Question Period has always been the key moment in the day when an opposition party can shine, grab the headlines, and pounce on government mistakes and weaknesses. Yet most Question Period sessions have been "sleepers" and featured disorganized and scattered NDP attacks which lack any type of focus. While this hasn't been a stellar time for the official opposition, I expect this will change once a new leader is in place. Critics will be reappointed, some of the NDP stars will return, and the continuous distraction that any leadership race entails will be over. Providing they return united after the leadership race ends the NDP will have a chance to improve their performance and solidify voter support.

The Liberals are far from dead. Bob Rae has done a commendable job of keeping them alive and he remains one of the best performers in the House. They are still pretty demoralized, but if the NDP stumble and pick the wrong leader or return divided, the Liberals are well positioned to strengthen their party in the public's mind. We can't forget that for most of modern time the Liberals had very strong popular support. To assume that one election means they are dead is a bit of a stretch.

One of the tasks facing the Liberals will be to figure out what they stand for, and get that message out to Canadian voters. It is not good enough for them to wander all over the political map. That plays to the Conservative and NDP advantage. Defining their position and matching that with a superior Question Period presence would give them an opportunity to attract back voters and supporters who have recently moved to the NDP or Conservatives. Like the NDP, the Liberals have tough choices to make this spring. If Rae can keep their profile high and encourage good staff to stick around, they can rebuild.

The next three to four months will be interesting ones: uncertain economic times that could either strengthen or weaken Conservative support; two opposition parties in flux, fighting for influence and voter support; and a new leader for the NDP and the Conservative political machine waiting to pounce at every opportunity. Canadian political life in 2012 will be anything but dull.

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