THE TORY TIDE EBBS IN THE PROVINCES AS THE NDP FINDS NEW STRENGTH
NEW DEMOCRATS ON A ROLL
THE TORY TIDE EBBS IN THE PROVINCES AS THE NDP FINDS NEW STRENGTH
For Halifax businessman Brian Flemming, the twin victories of the New Democratic Party over conservative provincial governments in the past two weeks evoked powerful memories of a previous era. As the official responsible for political affairs in Atlantic Canada in Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s office in 1978, Flemming flew to Halifax soon after then-Nova Scotia Premier Gerald Regan called a provincial election that year. But as Flemming campaigned alongside the Liberal premier, many voters recognized him as a prominent Trudeau aide. Ignoring Regan, they turned on Flemming and his boss, deriding Trudeau. When Regan lost the subsequent election, many analysts blamed the loss squarely on widespread dissatisfaction with Trudeau. Indeed, Trudeau’s first 11 years in office witnessed the elimination of Liberal governments in every one of the five provinces where they had held power in the middle of his first term. Now, that unforgiving cycle of Canadian politics appears to be repeating itself—this time, deposing Conservative administrations.
When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney swept into power on Sept. 4, 1984, with 211 Commons seats—a record—Tory governments ruled in seven provinces. In an eighth, British Columbia, the local version of the Conservatives, the Social Credit party, held office. But in less than five years, and with increasing momentum, the voters defeated Tory governments in Ontario, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Then, on Oct.
17 of this year, British Columbia’s Socreds fell to the New Democrats under leader Michael Harcourt. And last week, Saskatchewan’s NDP, led by Roy Romanow, defeated Conservative Premier Grant Devine’s administration (page 26). That left Tory governments in only three provinces. Even there, the Conservatives chng to power in Nova Scotia’s legislature evenly matched against their combined opposition; in Manitoba, the party holds a bare three-seat edge, while in Alberta, the number of MLAs sitting in opposition to the Tory government has multiplied sixfold in five years. To some commentators, the conclusion is unavoidable. “Mulroney would need an incredible fluke to reverse the trend that is bound to overthrow his regime, too,” wrote the Prime Minister’s former press secretary, Michel Gratton, in his syndicated column recently.
But at the same time, the period of Conservative dominance has left its mark on the Canadian political landscape. Despite the domino-like collapse of Tory governments across the nation, the cardinal points of conservative philosophy—fiscal responsibility, tax restraint, reliance on private enterprise—are no longer confined to the political right. Instead, they so dominate the views of most Canadian voters that in both
Saskatchewan and British Columbia, New Democratic Party campaigns adopted those themes in successful appeals to the political middle ground.
The rightward shift in Canada’s political climate in the 1980s now poses a particular challenge to the new NDP governments that are about to take office in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, joining Ontario, where the NDP came to power under Bob Rae in a surprise election victory last year. By some measures, those victories will give the NDP unprecedented influence: for the first time in Canadian history, New Democrats will govern more than half of the country’s citizens—52 per cent—at the provincial level. That fact gives the three NDP premiers a powerful say in negotiations over the federal government’s proposed overhaul of the Canadian Constitution, because changes must be approved by at least seven provinces containing 50 per cent of the population. But at home, judging by Rae’s first year in government, Harcourt and Romanow will be forced to tread a delicate line between meeting the expectations of their longtime backers among labor and social activists and maintaining good relations with business.
Victories: Noting that the Canadian public is no longer prepared to tolerate profligate spending or huge government deficits, some Tories argue that, in fact, the NDP victories will improve their own party’s chances in the next election. Former Mulroney adviser Dalton Camp, for one, says that the unavoidable compromises of governing with strict fiscal restraint will inevitably tarnish the NDP’s appeal. Said Camp: “It’s useful to have the NDP facing up to the same deficit problems that the federal government has had, and being accountable to the public. Let’s see what they do differently.” But many other Conservatives say privately that they already consider their party doomed in the next federal election. For them, the collapse of support for provincial Conservatives reflects the public’s judgment on such federal Tory policies as the Goods and Services Tax and the failed Meech Lake accord, as well as on the Prime Minister personally. Declared one disillusioned senior strategist for the Ontario Conservatives, who commented on condition that he not be named: “We have carried the federal party on our back for the last two elections, and we paid heavily. I am sick of sacrificing the provincial party for the federal party.” Added the Ontario Tory: “It’s a crisis point for the party. Our coalition is unravelling across the country. We may very well cease to exist in a significant form after the next election.”
Clearly, at the pragmatic level of constituency politics, the loss of provincial power is certain to hamper any future Tory campaign. Recalling his own experience with Liberal losses, Flemming noted: “If
you’ve got a provincial government with lots of strong MLAs and ministers, it makes it easier to get troops out on the street for a national election.”
Some observers see a more benign message for the federal Tories in the series of provincial defeats. According to those analysts, Canadian voters instinctively elect provincial governments of a different political stripe than the one in Ottawa simply to provide a check on the unfettered exercise of federal power. Said former federal Tory adviser James Gillies, now a professor of policy at York University in Toronto: “In our parliamentary system, there is nothing the opposition can do to stop the federal government from doing what it wants, and we have a totally ineffective Senate. People elect premiers of a different party so that the provinces can play the role of the real opposition.”
Other Conservatives insist that the B.C. Socreds and Devine’s Tories—like Richard Hatfield’s in New Brunswick in 1987—simply fell victim to their own political liabilities. Tory pollster Allan Gregg, head of
Decima Research, for one, argues that such pendulum swings between unpopular incumbents and opposition parties on the provincial level often take place every two terms—regardless of the federal cycle. Indeed, many members of the Prime Minister’s caucus insist publicly that they can still win re-election under Mulroney’s leadership in a possible 1993 campaign. Declared Tory Senator Finlay MacDonald: “Time will exonerate us if there is a rapprochement of the duality of Canada, and a pickup of the economy.”
Demise: Whether the western elections are accelerating the Conservatives’ demise or not, one thing seems clear: the NDP’s ascension in three provinces during the past 13 months does not mean that the country has moved radically to the far left of the political spectrum. Instead, the provincial wings of the NDP have themselves moved towards the right to capture the loyalties of mainstream voters. The NDP shift has been evident in Ontario, where Rae’s government has abandoned such cherished activists’ goals as the introduction of public auto insurance,
imposition of a minimum corporate tax and countering the trend of privatization of government assets. In the West, both Harcourt and Romanow campaigned largely on promises to balance the budgets in their respective provinces. Declared Romanow: “We have to live within our means. We’re taxed to death, and we cannot afford any more.”
In fact, the moderate tone of the two pre-
miers-designate won approval from even the most ardent fans of private enterprise. Said one U.S. government official who monitors Canadian affairs: “If you listen to Mr. Harcourt, he sounds like the past president of the Chamber of Commerce.” Ontario Tory leader Michael Harris said that Romanow “is more conservative than any Conservative campaign that I’ve seen in Ontario for a long time—barring my own.”
But other analysts saw currents at work in the NDP’s victories in British Columbia and Saskatchewan that run deeper than a switch in voter allegiance from highly unpopular incumbents. Chief among them is the concern among Canadians of every political stripe that the country’s social safety net, particularly medicare, is threatened because neither federal nor provincial governments can afford to pay for as many programs as they now operate. “The reason that Canadians are turning to New Democrats is that they are the ones they trust the most to preserve as much of the social safety net as possible,” said Michael Adams, president of Environics Research Group, which did the NDP’s polling in Saskatchewan. “They’ve earned the credibility as people who have fought for a kinder, gentler social welfare society. If Bob Rae tells us we can no longer afford certain frills, people will say, ‘It must be so.’ ”
Anxiety about the future of social programs underlies the apparent popularity of Rae’s proposal to protect the social safety net in the Constitution. According to one Environics poll released on Oct. 16, the proposed social charter is the most popular idea for constitutional reform currently before the country. But while the three NDP provincial leaders agree on many economic policies, they seem unlikely to unite behind Rae’s concept (page 28). Harcourt, for one, signalled last week that he will take advice on formulating his constitutional position from a constituent assembly in British Columbia, rather than from his fellow NDP leaders. Said Harcourt: “I have committed to a participatory process for the people of British Columbia.”
Golf: Whatever their potential differences on the shape of a new Canada, the three provincial leaders enjoy easy personal friendships. For his part, Rae first met Romanow as a newly elected New Democrat MP in 1978, when the latter was attorney general in Saskatchewan’s thenNDP government. Since that time, the two have gotten together for occasional games of tennis and golf. Harcourt, meanwhile, holds frequent telephone chats with his western counterpart—and kiddingly calls Romanow “a worrier.” The B.C. premier-designate has also gotten to know Rae: at an NDP convention in Halifax in June, Harcourt, federal NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin and the Ontario premier cooked a lobster dinner together. Said Rae: “There is a good level of personal trust between us.”
Now, it remains unclear whether the electoral triumphs of her provincial counterparts will boost McLaughlin’s political fortunes in the next federal election. “Partisan identification in this country has been destroyed,” declared Gregg. “The electorate is so volatile, I’ve given up predicting.” Still, few independent observers foresee an immediate comeback for the Conservatives. But if the party does lose power in Ottawa in the next election, history suggests that a federal defeat may well set the stage for a Tory revival in the provinces.
PAUL KAIHLA with correspondents’ reports
VOLATILE PATTERNS OF POWER
Twenty-one years ago this fall, Liberal party governments ruled half of the provinces as well as the nation. By mid-1979, the party had lost all power. The Liberals came back federally in 1980, but remained political outcasts in the provinces for five more years. Conservative control of seven provincial governments helped to set up the Tory federal landslide in 1984. But the wheel has turned again, and more firmly to the left. With the Liberals regaining eastern ground and the NDP rising in Ontario and the West, Tory regional power has been reduced to three provinces with 17 per cent of the population—conservatism’s lowest ebb in half a century.
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