Getting blindsided by a sleeper issue is every political campaigner’s nightmare. Which is why handlers, poll takers and media advisers awaiting election 1997 are closely watching the heat generated by Justice Minister Alan Rock’s 16-month-old gun-control legislation. The polls show that the vast majority of Canadians favor the law, which makes it mandatory to register firearms and bans importing and selling a variety of small handguns. But in several rural ridings, gun control remains an issue. No surprise, then, that the federal Tories and the Reform party have both promised to repeal the law. Or that the Grits take more than passing notice of the way the matter refuses to die in places like Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. “The Liberals are not going to win any votes,” notes Acadia University political scientist Agar Adamson, “by trotting out Alan Rock in these parts when the writ drops.”
With an election all but certain for early June, every little thing matters. Even though the Liberals are overwhelmingly ahead in the polls, they are haunted by history: the way the tide turned against them in 1984 the moment John Turner told Brian Mulroney during a televised debate that he had “no choice” but to make a series of controversial patronage appointments; the way David Peterson’s ruling Ontario Liberals called an early election in 1990 and were unceremoniously bounced from office. Pollsters say the electorate is now more volatile than ever.
The Liberals, therefore, will endeavor to run a cautious campaign. Their opponents will be praying for a stumble, a scandal or an issue, like gun control, with which to steal seats. In any event, the players had better be ready: at 36 days, the actual campaign will be 11 days less than in 1993, and the shortest by far in Canadian federal history because, for the first time, enumeration will be done before the election is called. “This is a sprint,” says Senator David Tkachuk, national director of the Tory campaign. “Lose your footing and there’s no time to recover.”
The battle for the House of Commons’ 301 seats is already under way in everything but name. Last week, the House was two-thirds empty as MPs worked their home ridings. Liberal TV ads crowded the airwaves in Quebec. The phones were being wired up in the Reform party campaign “war room” in Calgary. The rank and file of the New Democratic Party flocked to the annual convention in Regina, where leader Alexa McDonough attacked the Liberals on the issue of job creation. “If Ottawa can set and make targets for deficit reduction,” she declared, “then they can darn well set and meet targets for creating jobs.” As for the other leaders, they seemed to be everywhere: stumping the countryside, hitting the talk-show circuit and searching out photo opportunities.
The bustle is understandable—a short campaign means that early momentum may be everything. Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest realized this when he issued his detailed election platform last month, in the process making it clear that the Tories, with a mere two seats in the Commons, will be trying to back up up their claim of being the only truly national party besides the Liberals. But soon all the parties will be bombarding voters with their campaign messages. The Liberals, currently with 175 seats and the support of 47 per cent of decided voters, according to a late March poll by Environics Research Group Ltd., will try to make the election a referendum on their management of the economy. The Bloc
The campaign is under way in everything but name
Québécois, with 50 seats and 12-per-cent support—44 per cent in Quebec—will try to prove that it is still relevant in Ottawa. Reform, also with 50 seats and 12-per-cent support, will push tax cuts. And the NDP, denied official party status with only nine seats and currently enjoying 12-percent popular support, will attempt to sell a message of full employment and a strong safety net.
The big national machines have been up and running for months. Campaign headquarters are rented, staff is in place, signs are printed, some television ads are in the can. By last week, the Liberals had nominated a whopping 220 candidates while the Tories had named 104 and the NDP 180. The regionally based parties, which do not intend to run full slates, have been busy too: Reform, which expects to contest about 240 ridings, has given the nod to 130 candidates, while the Bloc is already well along the road to naming its 75 Quebec nominees.
In some cases, candidate selection is proving to be a real challenge. Last year’s redistribution of ridings has sparked a series of tough, some-
times nasty, nomination battles. Aprime example: the newly minted Nova Scotia riding of Pictou/Antigonish/Guysborough, where last month Liberal MP Francis LeBlanc narrowly squeaked past his caucus mate Roseanne Skoke, a strident opponent of gay rights, in an acrimonious home-town battle. And the usual scramble has been on for star candidates such as former general Lewis MacKenzie, who is running for the Tories in the central Ontario riding of Parry Sound/Muskoka, and ex-United Church cleric and federal Tory cabinet minister David MacDonald, who is hoping for the NDP nomination in the riding of Toronto Centre/Rosedale.
Even among second-tier candidates, party strategists are anxious to find a mix of names and faces that mirror the changing country. That approach can backfire—witness the way Chrétien raised hackles last month by decreeing that 25 per cent of Liberal candidates had to be women. Reform strategists, on the other hand, have been happy to trumpet the young, ethnic candidates they will run in the election—which they hope will help change their party’s redneck image. “Our party’s face,” points out Rick Anderson, Reform’s chief campaign strategist, “is changing.”
Facelifts cost money—lots of it. The national parties promise to spend big bucks on the tools of modern campaigning—TV advertising, polling and high-tech war rooms. Although party treasurers predictably claim that corporate and grassroots donations have been pouring in, they are reluctant to provide firm figures. All the same, the Liberals say they will spend about the same as in 1993, roughly $10.5 million, while the Tories, who have reduced their 1993 campaign debt of $8 million to less than $1 million, expect to drop $15 million this time. Reform will spend about $11 million, the NDP around $7 million and the Bloc in the $3-million range.
But austerity will be a factor in the campaign. Reform, as befits a party preaching fiscal prudence, has decided not to run candidates in clearly unwinnable seats. Every party, in fact, will carefully pick the seats into which it pours money. “What’s that old saying about sowing seeds in fertile ground?” says Liberal campaign co-director David Smith. Cost-cutting—along with fewer full-time reporters being assigned to the campaign by cash-strapped news organizations—is even behind McDonough’s decision to tour the country in a small jet rather than the usual, bigger 737.
Many candidates say that concerns over cost will not deter them from running tough, spirited campaigns. “I’m going to put on my Nikes and wear them out,” promises Keith Martin, a Reform MP who expects a tough battle in the B.C. swing riding of Esquimault/ Juan de Fuca. Two thousand kilometres away in Winnipeg North Centre, Judy Wasylycia-Leis, a former Manitoba cabinet minister who was nominated last October as the NDP’s first candidate, can hardly wait to start putting up the lawn signs even if the short campaign worries her. “This is the length of the provincial campaign,” she points out, “but I have to cover five times the riding.”
In spite of the current polls, there may be surprises. Some observers question the firmness of Liberal support. It may be “built on a bed of sand and could be very vulnerable,” Environics vice-president Donna Dasko noted last week. And, of course, there are always simmering issues—such as the gun-control legislation. In the end, that may not translate into much more than a few seats for the Opposition parties. But with the numbers—and time—so firmly stacked against them, they will take a seat any way they can get it.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.