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A Harper majority and other perilous predictions for 2011

Ed McMahon listens while Johnny Carson prognosticates as Carnac the Magnificent on NBC's Tonight Show.

NBC/NBC

Nothing is more self-defeating than predictions. The looking glass is cloudy at best, and that darn Internet provides constant access to everyone's clunkers.

But it's fun to try and no one gets hurt, so here are my fearless predictions for 2011.

1. Federal election returns a Harper majority

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My head says that there won't be a federal election in 2011: everyone seems pretty happy sticking it out for another year.

But my gut keeps telling me that the Conservatives will force an election. There are plenty of reasons to go now. The 2012 Alberta election will tear the federal party between Progressive Conservative and Wild Rose Alliance-supporters. A slow economy hasn't stuck to the federal Conservatives, but that is always just a matter of time. The Liberals will spending 2011 getting their act together and will be a more dangerous force in 2012. Better to strike now while a majority is within reach than risk waiting for another year.

If they do go to the polls, the Liberals will likely hold their own, but the NDP has a number of new incumbents who are vulnerable to a focused Conservative attack in places like Northern Ontario and British Columbia. Stephen Harper will be able to add a handful of Liberals seats to a tranche of NDP seats to put himself over the top to a majority.

2. The return of health care

A series of provincial elections this year and next will return the spotlight to the granddaddy of provincial issues: health care. The monster that eats each province's treasury will continue to grow, accelerating to well over 50 per cent of the budget in most jurisdictions with no sign of stopping.

The major political question will be where the money comes from, not how to stop spending. As a result, expect a knock-down, drag-out fight between the provinces and the federal government over the renewal of the Paul Martin "fix for a generation" health deal in 2004.

The major public policy question will be when health care spending becomes so out of control that it collapses government's ability to do anything else. As a result, expect increased experimentation with private service delivery in a number of jurisdictions.

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3. Gas hits $1.50 a litre by Labour Day

One of the major drags on both the United States and Canadian economy will be energy prices, particularly in vehicle fuels. Gasoline prices will skyrocket as international demand increases and supply remains flat. Look for major fleet owners to begin switching to natural gas or biofuels as a hedge against rising gasoline prices. And get ready for consumers to go bananas over one of the most visible elements of the household budget. This will be the major populist political issue of the summer.

Coincidentally, the electric car will begin to come on offer in major markets this year. Cars like the Scion and Volt will find ready markets of consumers sick of rising gas prices. One of the bigger public policy questions fleshing up is how to help people power up at work and commercial spaces, while charging it back to their own accounts. Expect lots of discussion about " smart grids" as 2011 grinds on.

4. Republican field rotates front-runners monthly

Though 2011 is not an election year in most of the United States, the news will be filled with stories about Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. These four politicians will each have at least of month of the year wearing the "front-runner for the Republican nomination" mantle, some of them twice and in non-consecutive months. As news cycles speed up and journalism becomes more partisan and aggressive, coverage of the nomination battle will be fierce and unrelenting. We will have to wait until 2012 to find out who actually wins, but there will be a half dozen "conventional wisdom" certainties between now and then.

A secondary part of this prediction is that no one else will gain the front-runner mantle between now and the Republican convention in Tampa. The field is already too crowded and overlapping for a significant new politician to break out of the pack. Sorry John Thune, Hailey Barbour and Tim Pawlenty. Running against four household names simply doesn't leave room for dark horses to win.

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5. Spectre of American T-bill default

In finance, U.S. Treasury Bonds are used as the stand in for " expected certain return." It is literally inconceivable that the United States would default on its obligations to lenders. In 2011, it will become conceivable. That isn't to say it will happen; saner heads will prevail. But for a moment, it will seem possible.

The reason is the collision of an unstoppable force and an immovable object: a rising deficit and the Washington's capacity to borrow will come to a head in the March budget debate. Already, the enervated House Republicans are making noises about cuts at any cost and shutting down the U.S. government. In response, the Obama administration is casting the GOP as the party that would default on the debt. By March, that may actually become a possibility in the eyes of the world. It won't happen, but it will scare the socks off people.

6. Christy Clark is elected B.C. Liberal leader

First, some disclosure. I know and like Christy Clark and helped her out a bit when I lived in British Columbia. Clark is going to be the next Liberal leader and Premier. There are a number of excellent candidates for the job, but Clark has the unbeatable advantage of not having been in office over the past two years. She is the only candidate who can get the Liberals out of their HST-related mess with some dignity. Having a free vote that rescinds the HST and gets the whole challenge behind them is the best way to refresh their mandate.

On the provincial NDP side, I have absolutely no idea who will be the leader, and I think the same is true for everyone in the NDP. Its seems a bit odd to remove a perfectly able sitting leader and then hold a leadership that can't attract any candidates, but what do I know.

7. Tablet sales explode

The integration of in-home televisions with video-on-demand and the internet will accelerate, but the expansion of tablet formats will be the big leap forward. Rather than stare at NBC sit-coms for hours on end, more and more people will stare at Funnyordie.com for hours on end, demolishing the old societal tent pole of the water-cooler conversation about last night's episode of I Love Lucy or Dallas or Friends. At the same time, the tablets will further pinch newspaper revenues.

Forrester Research says that one-third of Americans will own a tablet-style PC by 2015, an astonishing adoption rate. Apple will own the majority of this market for the next few years, but others are lined up to lower the price and introduce fierce competition that will make these items ubiquitous in a handful of years.

8. YouTube will become reality

I don't mean that reality will distort into ten minute long, four inch wide snippets of two-dimensional space. But increasingly, if it's not on YouTube, it didn't happen. Consider that in 2006, it was shocking that a leading U.S. politician was caught on tape saying something (" Macaca") that ended his career. Last year, it seemed a week didn't go without a major political story on YouTube.

There is insane video ambushing, insane public debates, insane Tea Party campaign ads, and auto-tuned versions of the same. And that's just in politics.

In Business, Tony Hayward wanted his life back and got slammed for his callousness. OK GO has become a major band based almost exclusively on its YouTube presence. Old Spice introduced the man your man could smell like, and revitalized their tired brand. And yes, there was a bed intruder song. And it all happened on YouTube.

Expect this trend accelerate rapidly, fueled by the Republican primaries and pro- and anti-Obama factions. By the end of the year, the US public debate will have moved from Fox News and MSNBC to YouTube.

9. Dalton McGuinty re-elected to third term

The polls in Ontario show a slight lead for the Progressive Conservative Party, but it's about as slight at their policies. Thus far, the PCs have been content to oppose without proposing alternatives, but 2011 will force the PCs to make tough choices between offering tax cuts or maintaining health and education spending.

Dalton McGuinty has history on his side. Ontario voters like experience, and first time leaders tend to wilt during the bruising election campaigns. Both opposition parties are lead by rookies and it's been 48 years since rookie John Robarts led his PCs to a majority, and 26 years since rookie David Peterson scored a minority government. McGuinty is also bolstered by the existence of a federal Conservative government in a province that always votes for the other guys. In fact, the only time in Ontario history that voters have elected a new government of the same stripe as the federal government was McGuinty's win in 2003 during a Liberal government in Ottawa.

My guess is that the PCs will lead the polls right into the last two weeks of the campaign, but - caught between a rookie leader, contradictory policies, voter reluctance to leave Harper without a counterweight, and a tenacious and disciplined McGuinty - they will wilt at the finish.

10. China will begin to falter

This is the prediction that runs the most in the face of current wisdom, but China will see a significant and obvious weakening domestically during 2011.

Long term challenges are piling up: the demographic time-bomb from the one-child policy, systematic corruption, the calcification that comes with a one-party state, insatiable demand for raw materials and increasing ethnic clashes. China is increasingly isolated internationally due to their monetary policies and riding fears in Asia over their clout. Caught between the explosive economic growth of the coastal regions and the grinding poverty of the interior, Chinese leaders will increasingly turn to nationalist rhetoric to maintain unity.

2011 will see a major, undeniable trigger event that will bring these weaknesses into harsh relief. If I were to guess, it will be a major environmental or natural disaster that sets off a cycle of ham-fisted government response, popular resentment, instability, and more ham-fisted government response.

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