Canada/SPECIAL REPORT

STAYING ALIVE

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 31 1997
Canada/SPECIAL REPORT

STAYING ALIVE

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 31 1997

STAYING ALIVE

Canada/SPECIAL REPORT

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Meet Dr. Keith Martin, a man who admits that his closest friends consider him “absolutely, completely nuts.” Four years ago, Martin, a then-32-year-old physician, relished his thriving medical practice in Victoria and six-figure income, and found added fulfilment in such activities as occasional trips to a war-torn part of Africa to work in a field hospital. Then, he joined the Reform party, won the nomination in the riding of Esquimalt/Juan de Fuca, and went on to become a member of Parliament. Today, Martin makes half the money that he did and regularly spends eight hours commuting to Ottawa, where he stays in a basement apartment. He usually works 10-hour days in an environment he considers “stultifying and bordering on anti-democratic”: the House of Commons. Single but eager to

have a family, Martin has not had a date in his home town since 1993. And when people ask him what he does for a living, he says: “I try not to tell them I’m a politician, because we’re just so unpopular.”

But here is perhaps the real surprise: when the governing Liberals drop the writ for an election campaign that will likely begin within six weeks, Martin will run for re-election. The reason, he says, is that “if I did not try firsthand to change the way Canada works, I would not feel comfortable complaining about the parts of it that do not work.” He is not alone: last week, there was no shortage of opposition politicians revving up for an election that their parties are long shots to win. Tory Leader Jean Charest unveiled his party’s election program in Toronto, while Reform Leader Preston Manning, also in town on a mini-pre-election tour, responded immediately with his own news conference. The Bloc Québécois, bloodied but apparently unbowed, gave a sometimescold welcome to a new leader. And everyone, of course, took potshots at the lofty Liberals.

The period just before an election is a politician’s traditional time for hope—but that emotion may be misplaced for many non-Liberal aspirants this spring. Consider the facts of life for the candidates from the Bloc, Reform, Tory and New Democratic parties: some have walked away from jobs that pay far more than the combined $85,700 salary and tax-free benefits of an MP. At a time when being a politician is already

unpopular enough, they will run for parties that have virtually no chance of forming the next government. One of the main reasons is the increasingly fragmented, regionalized nature of politics. With the exception of the Liberals, no party can now claim significant coast-to-coast support. The official Opposition, the Bloc, only runs candidates in one province. Reform, despite efforts to expand beyond its western Canadian base, is lower in the polls than it was in 1993. The Conservatives, after the devastation they suffered in the least election, have all but disappeared from voters’ radar screens west of Manitoba, and are experiencing similar problems in Quebec—in spite of the presence of leader and native son Jean Charest. And the New Democratic Party appears to have shrunk back to its original roots in Saskatchewan, along with several regions of British Columbia. “There has probably never been a tougher time to be a federal politician,” says John Wright, a pollster and senior vice-president with the Angus Reid firm. “And being in opposition is the most frustrating place of all.”

Opposition parties are often dissent-ridden, torn by questions over leadership and second-guessing over strategy. They are, by definition, election losers, with the baggage that implies. And, lest anyone forget it, they are rendered all but impotent against a majority government. “The thing to understand about being an opposition MP is that you have absolutely no power at all,” says Reform MP Ian McClelland. “You can try to influence things through per-

sonal contact, but that is all.” While some critics argue that the House of Commons does not reflect the views of Canadians properly, it is arguably true that the present parties do so too well. The Bloc, after all, was elected by almost half of Quebec’s eligible voters, with the clear message that it had no interest in addressing national concerns. Reform, with its Albertan roots, accurately reflects the belief of many people west of Ontario who consider that the federal government is too preoccupied with Central Canada and Quebec issues. The sharp differences between the opposition parties make it near impossible for them to combine to effectively criticize the Liberals. “They aren’t interested in the appearance of co-operation,” says former Reform MP Stephen Harper, who recently resigned his seat. “Each is, in effect, a one-party dictatorship.”

The 1993 election campaign that led to this fragmentation began traditionally enough, with most observers expecting a dogfight for power between the opposition Liberals and the ruling Conservatives. That was in keeping with political tradition throughout most of Canada’s previous 126-year history, when the electoral map had for the most part been colored alternately Liberal red or Tory blue.

No more. All that remains from past campaigns is the too-confident rhetoric: with the exception of the pro-sovereigntist Bloc Québécois, every leader claims that his or her party is seriously aiming to form the next government. ‘We are the one party that poses a serious national alternative to the Liberals,” Tory Leader Jean Charest told Maclean’s last week, shortly before he unveiled his electoral program (page 29). Similarly, Reform Leader Preston Manning said in an interview, We consider that the key elements of our platform should have appeal to Canadians everywhere.”

But both those claims sound hollow measured against current poll results and political trends over the past four years. Based on those, the coming election campaign will be a series of regional guerrilla skirmishes involving different participants—and different messages. The likely outcome, say most observers, is an overwhelming Liberal victory (right now, the Liberals hold 175 seats in the 295-seat House, compared with 50 for the BQ, 50 for Reform, the NDP with nine and the Tories with two). If current polling trends in each region were to hold true, says Wright, in the postelection, expanded 301-seat House, “the Liberals would be headed for an even bigger majority, and the other parties would fight it out for what’s left over.”

Part of the reason has been the Liberals’ skill at presenting an elusive target. Chrétien himself, despite recent controversies, still scores an approval rating higher than 50 per cent in most polls. The

The opposition parties struggle for votes in a fragmented country

Liberals have incorporated some elements of the programs of almost all their opponents. To left-leaning voters favoring strong central government, they argue that they are the only logical alternative to right-leaning Tories and Reformers. To voters favoring tough fiscal policies, they point to the fact that this is the first federal government of modern times to reduce the annual deficit.

Chrétien and his Liberals are the only party that has MPs in each of the 10 provinces. The four most important parties competing against them are each targeting specific audiences—in specific regions. The Tories, for example, will aim most directly at voters in the four Atlantic provinces, Ontario, Manitoba—and in Quebec, Charest’s own Sherbrooke riding. Reform will target rural Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. The NDP’s best chances are in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, parts of British Columbia, and Halifax, where leader Alexa McDonough hopes to win a seat (page 28). And the Bloc, under their newly minted leader, Gilles Duceppe, will concern itself entirely with Quebec’s 75 seats. “We have a double mission,” says Daniel Turp, who unsuccessfully contested the BQ leadership and will now run as a Bloc candidate. “We have to defend Quebec’s interests wholeheartedly on all fronts, and we must act as missionaries for the sovereignty movement to the rest of the country.”

In fact, each of the four parties will confront different and specific challenges in the campaign to come.

The Bloc Québécois. Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition faces the easiest task of any of the opposition parties. On the one hand, it is a divided party that has just elected its third leader in less than four years. Its new leader, chosen earlier this month, is Duceppe, a steely-eyed former hospital attendant, labor leader and one-time Marxist-Leninist. He is regarded, even by other sovereigntists, as cold and unbending. BQ MPs, since the departure of party founder Lucien Bouchard, have appeared uninspired and ineffective in the House of Commons.

But none of that is likely to matter. The Bloc’s support has seldom dipped below 45 per cent within Quebec since the last election, and it seems inconceivable for the party to win less than 45 of Quebec’s 75 seats. Other than Charest’s riding, they will fight head to head—and usually successfully— against the Liberals. “It doesn’t matter who leads it or even who runs for it,” says JeanMarc Léger, president of the Montrealbased Léger & Léger Inc. polling firm. “Half of Quebecers are sovereigntists, and they will only vote for the Bloc.” For now, many observers consider the Bloc at least an even-money prospect to return as the official Opposition.

The Reform party. Of all the party leaders, Manning is probably the most unfailingly polite and patient. He may also be, according to polls, the most problematic.

Angus Reid’s polls show that Reform’s core messages of leaner government, tougher stances on crime and illegal immigration, and a harder line towards Quebec go down well with a large percentage of voters across the country. But more than half of respondents say they are uncomfortable with Reform—and especially its leader. To that end, Manning has had an image makeover in the last six months: he has shed his glasses, changed from the jean shirts of 1993 to well-cut suits, taken voice lessons to moderate his reedy timbre, and

adopted a new hairstyle. Reform members are aware of their image problems—but not sure what to do about them. “You say you’re from Reform and people look at you like they’ve bitten into a lemon,” Martin said recently. “If you took Reform policies and removed the logo, it would be fine. But stick the party logo on it and people drop it like a hot potato.”

Reform will not be a factor in the Atlantic provinces, or in Quebec. It finished second in more than half of Ontario’s 99 ridings in the last election, and regards that province as a key battleground. Otherwise, most of its support lies in its home base in Alberta— where the party trails the Liberals in the polls. Reform, in fact, is lagging in all the areas where it did well in 1993. But asked whether he thinks Reform should moderate or tailor its policies to try to appeal to a broader base, Manning responds, “Sometimes, it is better to be right than to be popular. You have to hope that people take the time to see the wisdom of some new ideas.”

The New Democratic Party. The party traditionally billed as the “conscience of Parliament” shares some specific challenges and problems with the other opposition parties. Like the Tories, New Democrats have a leader who does not come from an area with any historic fondness for the NDP: Alexa McDonough’s home town of Halifax has never elected a federal New Democrat. Like Re-

form, the party’s best hopes lie in the West. Of all the main parties, the NDP, with its leftist traditions, offers the most distinctive alternative. And some Liberal strategists fear that people disillusioned with cuts to social programs and the Liberals’ embrace of free trade could move to the NDP.

But, so far, the polls do not support those concerns, and analysts suggest that the mainstream of the Canadian electorate has now drifted to the right, rendering the party all but irrelevant. As well, the NDP’s weak representation in the House—its total of nine MPs is under the minimum of 12 needed for official party status—has robbed it of an essential platform for its views. ‘We have virtually no access to Question Period and our work on committees is restricted,” complains eight-year veteran MP Chris Axworthy of Saskatchewan. And, Axworthy says, his party needs to be “creative and practical—until now, Canadians have not trusted us with their vote unless for opposition.” The Conservatives. Strategists say that at ground level, the Tories will mimic the efforts of Republican congressional candidates—who argued during last fall’s campaign that while Democratic President Bill Clinton would be re-elected, they were needed to check his power. The Tories will make a similar case in regard to the Liberals: Canada needs a strong national opposition.

With the release of their platform last week, the Tories are trying to position themselves to the right of the Liberals—in the terrain now occupied by Reform. The principal tools are promises to cut taxes by 10 per cent and abolish the Liberals’ controversial gun registration legislation. As well, federal Conservatives are trying to build links with the Mike Harris Tories in Ontario: Leslie Noble, a key strategist in the provincial Tory election victory, is

'Being in opposition is the most frustrating place of all'

THE HARD FACTS

LIBERAL

177 seats

I NDP ELECTION

if TnDV RESULTS

i2T0RY 1993

f INDEPENDENT

J6 INDEPENDENT I 3 VACANT I 2 TORY

PRESENT HOUSE OF COMMONS

chairwoman of the federal Tories’ platform committee. But other key elements of the Tory platform are either vague in tone or more reminiscent of the Liberals. A promise for binding negotiations over 12 months leading to a new interprovincial agreement on freer trade would almost inevitably lead to provincial complaints of unprecedented federal heavy-handedness. A new “Canadian covenant” with the provinces on health care evokes similar—and unrealized—Liberal promises made in the 1993 campaign Red Book. And many analysts think the Tory plans to, among other things, cut personal taxes, increase spending in several areas and balance the budget simply don’t add up.

Even for the successful opposition MP who is elected or re-elected, the rewards seem relatively few. In the House of Commons, opposition MPs cannot defeat a majority government, or do anything more than delay its legislation. Parliamentary committees, where important work is done studying prospective legislation, are largely ignored by the public.

Those people who still pay attention to Question Period complain that it is too theatrical and partisan. As a result of all that, former Reform MP Harper—who now heads the National Citizens’ Coalition lobby group—contends that MPs have become almost irrelevant and invisible in policy discussions. “If a person’s objective is to push a policy agenda,” says Harper, “party politics is not the way to do it in Canada.”

But that argument works both ways. For example, Harper’s present high public profile stems, arguably, from his own recognized effectiveness as an MP And even MPs bitter about the present system cite ways in which their position has allowed them to raise important issues for debate. Reform’s McClelland successfully sponsored a private member’s bill last year that places more effective controls on the reimbursement of election expenses. He was able to do so, he said, because “I made it clear to the Liberals I wanted to work

constructively on this issue.” Another project close to his heart is human rights. McClelland has a 30-year-old son who is gay. At present, he is lobbying for the creation of a civil registry system that would provide limited but formal acknowledgement of “nontraditional relationships.” “Being an elected representative confers that opportunity on me,” he says. Martin says his status as an MP has helped him have his views published—on issues ranging from health-care reform to foreign aid and conflict prevention—in important academic publications such as Policy Options and Canadian Foreign Policy magazine.

No matter what their party w affiliation, politicians, after I enough prodding, will always % cite some particular ideals § alongside more immediate and g pragmatic goals. The Liberals I and Tories traditionally express £ their commitments to Canadian s unity. The NDP has always presented itself as the defender of Canadian workers. Reformers say the Canada of tomorrow must be sharply restructured. Blocquistes want a different country for themselves. All are prepared to suffer a little to achieve their ends. Turp, for example, a professor at the University of Montreal, is ready to endure a “stiff salary cut and regular separation from his family while commuting to Ottawa, a city he scorns. But, much like Martin, he says, “If you want to change things, you have to be prepared to do so firsthand.”

Along with the complaints, there are occasional, sneaking signs of affection for the means by which they seek their ends. Manning,

for example, thinks Parliament in its present form is a “wasteful, sclerotic institution” that he likes to avoid as much as possible. But now and then, he confesses, when he sits in the House of Commons, he feels wistful. “Sometimes,” he says, “I look behind me at our band of MPs and I see the faces of each one, and I remember when I first met them, where and how long ago. And then I think about how far we have come together, and it makes me feel very, very proud.” Will the Canada of tomorrow be remodelled, reduced, or reshaped, as various opposition MPs now advocate? Will the House of Commons become Parliament Lite, with fewer responsibilities than present and less relevance to Canadians? Most likely, the circumstances of Canada’s opposition politicians will not be improved by the next election. Regardless, the consensus seems to be that the House of Commons may not be much—but they’d still like to call it home. On that, at least, the country’s otherwise divided politicians remain united.

With LUKE FISHER in Ottawa

SI Post your opinion on which party will form the official Opposition after the next federal election in the This Week section of the Maclean’s Forum (www.canoe.ca/macleans)

POPULAR VOTE

1993

ANGUS REID POLL

FEB. 1997

□ Liberal

□ Reform ■ Tory

□ Bloc

□ NDP ED Other