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As for election timing, it's better to spring ahead than fall back, Mr. Harper

OTTAWA

great respect, Mr. Harper, not such a good idea.

There is, of course, more to a late fall election than wind shear at small airports, iced-up wipers on the campaign bus, dreary photo ops that hold more chance of a slip of foot than tongue, more dressing and undressing than even a good head of hair can bear -- not to mention journalists so wired on Sudafed and Benadryl that they not only aren't listening to you but can't hear anyway for the popping going on in their eardrums.

But there is that, too, and it should all be taken into consideration.

The Leader of the Loyal Opposition was in Calgary this week, and while there said that he would be completely "prepared" to fight such an election if, somehow, his party could bring about the fall of the Liberal government.

In many ways, of course, he has to say this, for politicians are so often at the mercy of even friendly questioners. And yet it is understandable that Harper, who had a miserable spring and not a very good summer, would be pleased with the slight shift in the current weather.

Various polls have argued that his party's popularity, which had plummeted following the Commons standoff and the mysterious Gurmant Grewal affair, is rising again. Not enough to win should an election be called, but enough, anyway, to keep the Liberals in a minority situation. And for those who recall, as Harper did this week in Calgary, that the Paul Martin Liberals entered the 2004 election poised to win a massive majority -- only to almost lose the government through campaign bumbling -- this is encouraging for Conservatives.

There is also the fact that the small rise in party fortunes began before newspaper fronts began overflowing with the spending habits of resigned Mint president David Dingwall -- in particular the $1.79 package of gum he expensed.

(One day, I hope, some academic will produce a paper on how Canadians, in a most peculiar reversal of expected form, are invariably less outraged by humongous scandals than they are by small extravagances. Mila Mulroney's shoe closet, Jean Chrétien's golf balls, Dingwall's chewing gum. . . .)

But there is, all the same, humongous scandal involved here, and in less than three weeks Mr. Justice John Gomery will release his preliminary report on his inquiry into the sponsorship scandal -- leading, naturally, to another frenzied round of editorializing, columnizing and good old Tim Hortons carping about Liberal sleaze.

In anticipation of this round of public flogging, Martin's government has jacked opposition days back to later next month, in the hopes of cutting down any chance that a no-confidence motion could force a much earlier election than the one Martin has pledged to call 30 days after Gomery tables his final report.

As that is expected on the first day of February, we can presume an election call for early March and a campaign in still unpredictable weather -- but at least one that will include the first day of spring, blossoms on British Columbia's Lower Mainland and perhaps even the ice around here going out by election day.

In other words, a time of hope, of renewal, of new beginnings -- all matters that Harper should consider as he ponders what will, by any measure, be the most important election he will ever fight.

The Leader of the Opposition said in Calgary that once Gomery's first report comes out, "all bets are off." Let us hope, then, that he puts his own bid down on the only sensible bet: a spring election.

He would then be exchanging a time when many voters feel miserable about what's coming, for one in which all Canadians welcome change.

He would be campaigning in a spring when Canadians would have a better sense of the two most important political figures outside Ottawa, the next leader of the Parti Québécois and at least the front-runner in the race to become the next premier of Alberta.

He would be campaigning in the election's most critical province, Ontario, at a time when traditionally conservative strongholds might be considerably less enchanted with government management in the manufacturing economy, from automobiles to forest products.

There has long been a feeling in Central Canada that the Liberals need to go to their room for a good long rest and maybe think about how they wish to behave when they come out. The notion of a fifth straight Liberal government is simply one that doesn't, somehow, seem quite Canadian, even if the Liberals are, as commonly advertised, the natural ruling party of this ungovernable country.

Harper would have time to work on that "positive vision" that fellow Conservatives have been telling him is needed.

And, most important of all, he would have the whole winter in which to convince Canadians -- and that, by necessity, includes the national media that he prefers to shun -- that he is ready.

He tried and failed last spring.

But the true beauty of spring is that each one is seen as a brand new opportunity.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.ca

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