This opinion isn't meant to sound defeatist, but I think it realistic. If I had to quantify Harper's chances for re-election, I would say there is an 80% likelihood. Huh? The polls consistently show a dead heat, which should translate into a 50/50 proposition.
Firstly, the advantage should always lie with the incumbent. Voters aren't likely to turf their MP's unless there is a strong feeling that change is required. I don't see a "kick the bums out" mentality manifesting itself. Although I cringe when I hear Harper refer to the government as "new", that doesn't mean that Canadians have developed a firm opinion of our direction. Governments tend to amass more negatives, alienate more sub-groups, simply as a function of time. The Liberals were shackled with a long paper trail, that was easily picked apart by the opposition. It is debatable whether there are enough contentious issues to fight effectively against the Harper government. Time is also the Liberal enemy, in that, Canadians just changed governments, do they really want to do it again so soon?
What is the lightning rod issue that can bring down the government? In my mind, the environment is the achilles heel. The problem, despite the embarrassing performance to date, the Harper government knows that they must shore up this weakness. Yesterday's announcement was another useful brick, in the effort to "neutralize" the environment. Harper doesn't need to win this issue, he just needs to take it off the front burner. There will still be possibilities for the Liberals on this file, but if the debate gets lost in specifics then Harper has accomplished his goal.
Apart from the environment, what other issues would force Canadians to seek change? The economy is strong, taxcuts are a near certainty, employment high. The Tory social agenda has largely been muted with a minority situation. Foreign policy has many concerns, but I'm not sure there is anything there to merit a change. The "just like Bush" argument is a good one, debatable how that would play out in an election campaign.
The problem, while we political geeks debate the fine points and educate ourselves on all the issues, the average person only has a tertiary interest. If you asked Canadians whether Harper has raised or reduced taxes, I'm willing to bet most would choose the latter, despite the fact groups like the Canadian Taxpayers have concluded otherwise. I question whether Canadians truly appreciate the nature of this government, the relative dis-interest manipulated to convey competence.
There is another caution in the polls, the internals usually show Harper with a strong level of satisfaction. A sense that the government keeps its promises, shows adequate leadership, is trustworthy, are all indicators of how hard it will really be to defeat the government. All things being equal, the devil you know argument may finally work to Harper's favor.
The situation isn't desperate, Harper can be defeated, but I don't think partisanship should cause us to delude ourselves into over-stating the chances. I take some solace in the unpredictable nature of election campaigns. I'm not all doom and gloom, but I'm not sure my disdain is representative of the general sense.