Canada

attleground ONTARIO

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 12 1997
Canada

attleground ONTARIO

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 12 1997

attleground ONTARIO

Canada

ELECTION

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

MARY JANIGAN

The area known as Lincoln Heights in Waterloo, Ont., is the kind of instantly familiar place that could easily have served as the real-life inspiration for everything from television sitcoms to soap operas depicting life in suburbia. A subdivision built in the 1950s and 60s, its large, detached homes rest on neatly maintained, tree-filled lots. On a sunny afternoon last week, two small children rode bicycles, neighbors waved as they passed each other, a middle-aged woman tended her garden, and three cars were in driveways undergoing spring cleaning. There was also, as Progressive Conservative candidate Lynne Woolstencroft found, uncertainty, some unhappiness and occasional bafflement about the direction of Canadian politics. “People,” said Woolstencroft as she went door-knocking, “feel things slipping away from them—and they don’t know what, if anything, they can do about that.” It is not yet clear how such

sentiments will influence the campaign in the crucial battleground of Ontario. “So far,” says Reiny Schmidt, a 78-year-old retired accountant and Lincoln Heights resident, “I am not hearing much that excites me.” Although the Liberals swept all but one of the province’s 99 ridings in 1993 (after last year’s redistribution, Ontario now has 103), even they concede that is unlikely to happen again. This time, the Conservative, New Democratic and Reform parties can each lay claim to strength in some areas of the province. And since NDP support seems mostly restricted to small pockets of Toronto and Northern Ontario, the crucial battle for second place behind the Liberals will be between the Tories and Reform. With Ontario holding over one-third of the seats in the House of Commons, the question of whether—and by how much—one of those parties can surge ahead will likely determine the Liberals’ fate.

Kitchener/Waterloo is a case in point. Prior to the 1993 election, the Tories held the riding—called Waterloo before redistribution—for 14 years. The candidates for the three leading parties, Liberal MP Andrew Telegdi, the Tories’ Woolstencroft, and Reform’s Mike

This time, a Libera weep seems unlikly

Connolly, are personable, well-known local figures who also ran against each other in 1993. The final totals were: Liberals, 26,269 votes; Reform, 15,916; Tories, 15,104; NDP, 2,822. The right-wing split, in short, gave the Liberals the victory.

But that was then. This time around, in spite of their high standing in the polls— more than 55 per cent in Ontario, according to recent surveys—Liberal strategists are uneasy. In particular, they fret that a right-wing split is unlikely to recur—and that Ontario residents will turn to the Tories in order to replace opposition parties they perceive as regional: the Bloc Québécois from Quebec and the Reform party from the West. Says Stephen LeDrew, the president of the Ontario wing of the federal Liberals: “There is no question that the Tories are looked at because some people want a cohesive opposition.” And, he adds, “people say, ‘Let’s get rid of this fractured, grumpy group.’ ” Those sentiments, in fact, surface often in Kitchener/Waterloo, a riding that Conservative Leader Jean Charest visited within his first two days of campaigning last week. The area is relatively affluent, with a large number of high-tech enterprises, two universities and an unemployment rate below the national average. Because of those relatively comfortable local circumstances, candidates agree, voters’ concerns about the campaign are largely national, rather than local, in focus. “People are concerned about the future of the country,” says Reform candidate Mike Connolly. A 66-year-old native of Britain who had been a longtime army officer, he moved to Canada in the early 1980s and soon became involved in local politics as an alderman. He applauds his party’s refusal to recognize Quebec as a distinct society—unlike the stand of the Liberals, the Tories and the NDP— and its call for the devolution of powers over language and culture to all provinces. “Reform,” says Connolly, a bluff, enthusiastic man, “is the only party that has any new ideas about Quebec—and just about anything else, for that matter.”

TRACKING THE PARTIES

National opinion polls released since the eve of the election call:

Angus Reid

1,513 adults surveyed April 16 to 22

Environics-

CROP-CBC

1,998 adults surveyed April 17 to 22

COMPAS

2,600 adults surveyed April 15 to 25

Incumbent Liberal MP Telegdi, 50, on the other hand, is a solemn, soft-spoken figure whose stance on most issues is middle-of-the-road. National unity, he agrees, is important, but “you need a truly national party with roots in Quebec to handle that— and that is us.” Woolstencroft, 52, makes the same claim for the Tories. An agreeably blunt and vigorous woman with a long record of community involvement, she sometimes sounds more like a New Democrat as she bangs away at the Liberals’ cuts to health and social services. “We balance our pragmatism on spending with compassion,” she says. ‘The Liberals have lost touch with those values.”

Still, a swing through Lincoln Heights with Woolstencroft shows that, so far, voters have many different opinions over what issues matter most-and which party is best able to address them. At one door, a 53-year-old salesman says he will vote Liberal, in large part because he likes the steep cuts made by the Ontario Tories and admires federal Finance Minister Paul Martin for doing some of the same. At another door, a woman in her late 40s says that the promises from the different parties "all sound the same, and no one keeps them, anyway." Tory prom ises to cut taxes are unimpressive, "coming from a party that raised them so much while in power." But at another door, there are signs that Woolstencroft is making headway. Robin Banks, a

retired 62-year-old former university professor, is a friend of Telegdi and a longtime Liberal. But he admits to being frustrated with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien over his broken promise to scrap the Goods and Services Tax. He is very annoyed by cuts to the CBC, and fears the Liberals “have no sense of where to take the country.” Banks will not say how he will vote, but adds: “I am looking at the Tories very closely.”

To counter such views, the Liberals are portraying the Tories, with their platform of tax cuts and reduced government, as an ideological twin to Reform. But their hopes for a split in the right-wing vote may be stymied by one fact: Reform standings remain low in many areas. The key exception is central Ontario, including Peterborough and Barrie, and pockets of southwestern Ontario. In fact, Liberal organizers are taking a sly strategic step— booking Justice Minister Allan Rock into small communities to remind voters of the government’s controversial 1995 gun-control legislation, including the requirement that all weapons must be registered. “Every time Allan talks about gun control, Reform goes up,” says a senior Liberal. “We’ll send him to Orangeville or Woodstock because it gets their dander up.”

If the Liberals start to slip, their losses will start in the crucial suburban belt around Metro Toronto, including Markham and Bramalea/Gore/ Malton, and spill into southwestern and then central Ontario. The Tories, in turn, are concentrating on so-called 905 country, the ring around Metro. Their support is at its highest level there—up to 25 per cent of decided voters. To counter fears that the federal Tories would, like Mike Harris’s provincial government, cut taxes and then slice health and educational services, Charest stresses that his promised 10-per-cent reduction in personal income taxes will put more money in consumers’ pockets, stimulate the economy and create jobs. And he underlines his commitment to raise federal transfer payments to the provinces for those vital social services. ‘There is no magic bullet to get us to the top: we simply have to get the message out that we have a plan,” says Ontario campaign co-chairman Jan Dymond.

Reform Leader Preston Manning is concentrating on southwestern Ontario, including Guelph, Waterloo, Kitchener, Cambridge and Brantford. His problem: the Tories are targeting the same areas—often thwarting Reform’s advance. Strategists for other parties note that, whether fair or not, Reform’s reputation for attracting MPs and candidates on the far right offends many people. One such voter is Andrew Townsend, a 31-year-old employee of a high-tech firm in the Ottawa bedroom community of Kanata. He voted Reform in 1993, but vows he will not do so again because, he says, “now I know who they are.” Townsend adds he will likely vote Tory because, “Brian Mulroney isn’t part of it any more and Jean Charest knows where he is going.”

But he, like many potential Tory voters in the province, is upset by Charest’s support for distinct society status for Quebec. That is one ace in the hole for Manning. Another is his call for a $2,000 tax cut by the year 2000 for an average family. As campaign director Rick Anderson puts it: “People feel that they are working extremely hard at jobs that are under threat and that don’t pay them enough, after the tax man is through, to allow them to save for their retirement or reduce their debt.”

While Reform and the Tories scramble for seats on the right of the Liberals, the New Democratic Party is attacking from the left. It is concentrating on ridings where the party has traditional pockets of support: Northern Ontario, including Sault Ste. Marie and Nickel Belt (where veteran Elie Martel is the party’s strongest Ontario hope), downtown Toronto and Windsor. In the early going, strategists from other parties concede that NDP Leader Alexa McDonough has been surprisingly effective—in part because of her blunt admission that her party has no chance to gain power and is hoping to serve as “the conscience of Parliament” instead. “People think of it as a strategy—I just think of it as telling the truth,” McDonough said as she campaigned in Hamilton last week. The Liberals, she added, “run on a social democratic program. But after the election is over, they govern on behalf of the elites.” Still, McDonough may have hurt herself badly last week when she conceded that the NDP’s platform will cost $18.8 billion.

Ultimately, says one Ontario Liberal, one of his party’s biggest advantages rests in the fact that “we annoy people less than each of the other parties.” But in some ways, the real key to success may lie among those who already know that they won’t vote Liberal. In Lincoln Heights, Reiny Schmidt, an occasional Liberal voter in the past, says the party now has “too many MPs”—and that he will vote for either Reform or the Tories. For now, the polls indicate there are hundreds of thousands of others like him in Ontario. The Liberals have to hope that when June 2 comes, those voters will split that anti-government vote right down the middle. If they cannot divide their opposition, they may be unlikely to conquer.

TOM FENNELL

LUKE FISHER

JOHN DeMONT

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