When it comes to federal politics, the year 2010 should be remembered as having been exactly like a midway roller-coaster ride. There have been many ups and downs, twists and turns, and thrills and frights " but as the ride comes to an end and we open our eyes again, we find ourselves pretty much exactly where we started. This political year certainly has been one of turbulence, but not necessarily one of advancement or progress for any of our political parties.

Indeed, the first surprise of 2010 is how little things seem to have changed despite the number of significant political events that have occurred. As Canadians were ringing in the New Year almost 12 months ago, Conservatives were hovering in the mid-30s in public support, with the Liberals five points behind and the NDP in the high teens. A year later, as we begin to speculate on what 2011 might have in store for our political leaders, the Conservatives are hovering in the mid-30s, while the Liberals are five points behind and the NDP remains in the high teens. Shades of Groundhog Day!

Contrast this with the number of opportunities afforded to all parties to make their mark on the electorate: prorogation, a minority budget, the Vancouver Games, the G8 and G20 summits, a royal visit, the end of the mandatory long-form census, the Liberal Express, an untendered F35 contract, the long-gun registry vote, the UN Security Council vote and the extension of our mission in Afghanistan (albeit in a very different role). Each of these events had the potential to significantly alter political for-tunes. Instead, consistently throughout the year, even the most temporary advantage created by a party on a specific issue was quickly washed away by the next party’s handling of the next issue. In fact, as pollster Nik Nanos has often commented, most swings in public support in the last 12 months have been the result of an opponent’s weakness rather than a party’s deft handling of a particular file.

This is not to say, however, that the last 12 months have had no impact on party fortunes. Hits and misses on all sides have reinforced certain perceptions and changed others, and it is important to acknowledge the lessons of 2010 as we turn to 2011.

Completing as they were their fifth year of minority rule " and their second in the midst of global economic uncertainty " the Conservatives probably had the most at risk coming in to 2010. Proroguing Parliament in the middle of the holiday season angered the electorate more than strategists had anticipated, and the international event calendar would give Prime Minister Harper as many opportunities to shine as it would chances to fail. At home, the prospect of passing a fifth consecutive minority budget through Parliament was not a foregone conclusion, as pressure mounted on Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff to stop propping up the Conservative government.

Overall, the Conservatives quite successfully managed the main political challenges that 2010 threw at them. On the international stage, Canada put its best foot forward when it hosted the world at the Vancouver Games, and showed tremendous leadership at the G8/G20 tables on the regulation of international financial institutions. After most analysts had predicted a failure, Canada successfully blocked a global bank tax and will now co-chair the working group dealing with currency valuation. And while criticisms over summit costs and the treatment of protestors linger, the general impression left with voters is one of economic success for Canada relative to its partners, and policy success for the prime minister at the global leaders’ table.

Here at home, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty successfully passed his fifth consecutive minority budget, and the government received a good grade from Auditor General Sheila Fraser on its oversight of the initial spending related to the stimulus package. The Queen’s visit in July " which proved considerably more popular with Canadians than had been predicted " gave the prime minister one more opportunity to showcase his statesman side, as did his now-annual Arctic tour. In both cases, the public mood was enhanced, and the public’s trust in the prime minister’s leadership was buttressed.

With regard to foreign policy, the Conservatives suffered a significant setback when it failed to win election to the UN Security Council. But after dropping its initial ”œit’s Michael Ignatieff’s fault” defence, the government argued a much more compelling case that Canada had lost certain votes because of its decision to focus foreign aid, a less ambiguous foreign policy in general, and its more forceful defence of Israel in particular. Canadians might still be disappointed to have lost the vote, but the argument that Canada’s foreign policy is not for sale appears to have resonated with them to the point of neutralizing any negative impact the vote might have had on Conservative support.

More recently, the decision to extend Canada’s mission in Afghanistan could also have been fraught with risk for the government. The resolution passed by the House of Commons in 2008 did call for an end to the combat mission only and referred to a review of our role by 2011, a move from Kandahar to Kabul and a ”œbehind the wire” training role. Nevertheless, the public had not really been given time to prepare for the idea of having a meaningful presence in Afghanistan beyond next year; without adequate warning, it might have balked at the government’s proposal. But in the end, the substance of the decision, and the absence of a unified opposition to it, seems to have neutralized any potential negative effect on the government’s standing.

If the big events of 2010 proved to be winners for the government, it is the smaller events that quite consistently conspired against it. Putting a drag on Conservative support, decisions related to prorogation, the longform census, the fake lake and the fight with veterans created controversies where there should not have been any and that lasted much longer than they needed to. From a public opinion perspective, the initial decisions did not offend as much as the apparent rigidity with which the government dealt with opposing views. Specifically because none of these was a matter of confidence or national security, the public expected there to be some room for discussion, negotiation and even reconsideration. That the government chose instead to dig in its heels proved to be more damaging in the end than the decision itself.

In light of all these events, that the Conservative government has maintained its lead in public opinion in the midst of a fragile economic recovery can already be claimed as a victory for the party in power. Moreover, when the Conservatives have reclaimed the initiative in the past, they have consistently done so by refocusing the government’s agenda on ”œtried and true” Tory issues. As it looks to 2011, the government will have at least three opportunities to do just that: defining a new role for Canadian troops in Afghanistan will refocus the government’s foreign policy in an area of strength. Presenting a fiscally conservative budget that charts our way back to surpluses will reassure an increasingly worried electorate (see the Nanos poll for details) that the economy is in good hands. And engaging in a post-potash review of the Investment Canada Act will clarify the rules for future potential investors, while restoring the Conservative narrative on the economy and foreign investment, and reconfirming that Canada is indeed open for business. In all these tasks, the prime minister and his government will also benefit from the advice and counsel of ONEX executive Nigel Wright, who makes his return to the political arena this month. Wright’s skills, expertise and demeanour make him an ideal PMO chief of staff, as the government transitions out of stimulus and attempts to navigate through increasingly choppy minority waters.

In a way, 2010 proved to be a challenge for the Liberals in exactly the opposite way. More than at any other time since the 2006 election, the Liberals were able to capitalize on the ”œminor scandals” created by the Conservatives and generate public support for their opposition to the government’s decisions. On the major issues, however, they remain largely undistinguishable from the party they claim to want to replace as government. When it comes to the fight against the deficit, the economy or Afghanistan, differences in Conservative and Liberal policies are more ones of nuance or emphasis rather than stark choices. And while the Conservatives can still use law and order issues to distinguish themselves in the eyes of voters, the Liberals have yet to focus the public’s mind on the one or two flagship issues on which a Liberal government would take a markedly different approach. In a year of political trench warfare, nuance might get you a few more feet ahead to take the hill, but it won’t be bold enough to allow you to take the village.

Despite those challenges, 2010 was " from a party perspective " the best year yet for the Liberals since their defeat almost five years ago. The ”œLiberal Express” summer bus tour is a case in point. Following in the footsteps of every Opposition leader since Brian Mulroney, Ignatieff spent the summer months on the road, visiting as many as 172 communities, and giving his election tour machine a dry run at the real thing.

While the results of the tour were perhaps not the overwhelming success claimed by party strategists, it was certainly more effective that the Tory war room was prepared to admit. First, the buses ran on time. As many journalists who cover election campaigns have often remarked, ”œIf you can’t run your own tour, how do expect to run the country?” The basic competence of an election tour may seem an odd proxy for running a government for those outside the bubble, but it remains nonetheless an important litmus test in the eyes of politicians and those who cover them. The tour also allowed voters to see Mr. Ignatieff without the filter of the media or opposing parties. He had the opportunity to perfect his core messages to Canadians and was clearly more at ease by the end of the summer than he was on the day he set off from Parliament Hill. Finally, despite the fact that many of the Canadians with whom Ignatieff met were already Liberals, those encounters allowed the leader to energize the party base in a way that his predecessor never did.

The long-gun registry vote in September was also a pivotal moment for Ignatieff " this time, with his caucus. Having been pinched too often between a unified Conservative front on one side of an issue and a unified NDP front on the other, the Liberals decided this vote would have to be one on which the Liberals would take a principled stand and let others carry the burden of casting the deciding vote. Despite internal caucus disagreements, Ignatieff demanded that his MPs vote to support the continued existence of the registry, whipped the vote and carried the day. Over time, internal rifts may well appear as a result of the imposition of the whip, but in the short term, it allowed the Liberal caucus to present a united front at a time when Ignatieff sorely needed one. Moreover, it turned the tables on Jack Layton and the NDP, who found themselves most uncomfortable in their newfound role of having to explain their support for a Conservative initiative. 

Looking to 2011, the Liberal leader still has a great deal of work to do to define himself and his party in the eyes of the electorate. In concrete terms, how different would the policies of an Ignatieff government be from those of the Harper government? Despite what would likely be protestations on both sides upon hearing it, the truth is, the answer to date would have to be ”œnot very” or ”œdon’t know.” Sharper policy differences must be articulated ahead of the next election, but unlike his immediate predecessor, Ignatieff will now be able to do so without having to fight his rearguard. He may not yet have gained much ground in public opinion terms, but he will have an opportunity to do so in 2011, having rallied his caucus and his party behind him.

Affecting both Liberal and Conservative fortunes in a minority House, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois will continue to shape the course of politics in 2011.”¨

After a very strong start with the Paul Martin minority government and more limited success with the Harper Conservatives, the NDP seems to have lost its footing in this minority House. For as long as its principal target was the Liberal Party and its objective was to position itself as ”œthe real opposition,” the NDP enjoyed considerable success in Parliament and could legitimately aim to secure the support of a quarter of the electorate. That all changed earlier this fall with the vote on the long-gun registry. For the first time, the Liberals managed to turn the tables on the NDP, putting them in the position of having to ”œprop up” the Conservatives. While the combined Opposition ultimately carried the day, it came at a cost for Leader Jack Layton and his caucus. With individual MPs weighing their options in full public view and the fate of the registry being placed squarely in their hands, the NDP succumbed to the strategy they had so successfully waged against the Liberals for five consecutive budgets and countless other votes since 2006. As has been the case in the debate over the renewal of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, expect the NDP in 2011 to oppose the government but fight the Liberals. After all, the only road to more NDP seats runs through current Liberal support.

As has been the case since the beginning of this minority cycle, the Bloc’s continued dominance in Quebec makes it difficult for either the Conservatives or the Liberals to win a majority. Absent the threat of losing many seats if a vote of nonconfidence unexpectedly brought the government down, the Bloc has enjoyed the most freedom of any opposition party to oppose government initiatives. That said, whether the Bloc ultimately favours an election in 2011 or 2012 will depend a great deal more on what happens in Quebec City rather than Ottawa. Recent grumblings within the Parti Québécois about the leadership of Pauline Marois have re-ignited speculation that Leader Gilles Duceppe may be exiting the federal scene for a shot at the premier’s chair. Notoriously ruthless with their leaders (and usually led by their former leaders), PQ members may well deliver a rebuke to their leader when they cast a mandatory leadership review vote in April. With an aim to keep all of Duceppe’s options open, it is the dynamics of that vote " more than the state of federal politics " that will determine whether the Bloc supports or opposes the government in the spring.

Of course, all this inevitably leads to a very basic question: Will there be a federal election in 2011? The most accurate and obvious answer is, no one can know. But of this, we can be sure: the window for an election in 2011 is not nearly as wide as some might have thought. The next federal budget is the most obvious target on the Opposition’s list. After two and a half years, this minority Parliament will have outlasted most minorities on record, and the appetite for change may prevail regardless of individual parties’ prospects. But should the government succeed in securing safe passage through Parliament of a sixth consecutive budget, the prospects of a federal election will soon compete with several provincial contests, notably in Saskatchewan and Ontario, where an election date is set by law for the fall of 2011. In this light, it is not inconceivable that this minority government might actually make it close to " if not all the way to " the legislated fixed election date of October 2012. After all, if the 2011 budget window comes and goes, provincial contests take over the fall calendar and parties find themselves still in this position come December of next year, what would be the incentive to precipitate a rendezvous at the polls? Why not simply let this Parliament complete its term?

Regardless of the timing of the next election, one can hope that political parties draw one lesson from the last 12 months " and indeed the last six and a half years. Trench warfare can only yield certain gains. In tight constituency races, specific policies aimed at specific demographic groups can make " and have made " the difference between victory and defeat. But as public opinion hardens and preferences set in, it takes more to break the mould. After a full year of stalemate in the polls, no party can afford to retreat to its base.

The last time a party leader reached well out of his comfort zone and spoke to an audience not already conquered occurred in December 2005. In the midst of an election, the Leader of the Opposition travelled to Quebec City where it was said his party could win no seats. He spoke of more autonomy for Quebec, a stronger voice on the international stage and the recognition of its people as a nation. Five weeks later, against all odds, and much to the surprise of the punditry, 10 of his fellow candidates won election to Parliament. So the question for our four party leaders today is this: Who is that next audience, what is my message, and will I be the first to reach out? Even if only one of them does that, who knows how it might change the game.