COVER

SEARCHING FOR AN OPPOSITION

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 19 1997
COVER

SEARCHING FOR AN OPPOSITION

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 19 1997

SEARCHING FOR AN OPPOSITION

The Maclean's Election Panel

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

Whether they occupy the right, left or centre of the political spectrum, Canadians still seem to agree on a few things. According to Maclean’s weekly survey of at least 10 undecided voters in each of five ridings across the country, a majority in English Canada are angry that the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois serves as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. A party committed to the breakup of the country, they say, should not be given that status. There was no strong consensus on the best alternative, but NDP Leader Alexa McDonough was ranked highly by many panelists, who say that more balance is needed in Parliament.

On another issue, however, there is virtual unanimity: when it comes to fighting crime, Ottawa needs to do more. And while a minority believes that Canada’s new gun control laws are too restrictive, most say the issue should not be central in the campaign. Instead, they want to hear more from all parties about strategies for dealing with young offenders, sentencing, and violent crimes like armed robbery and murder. So far, most of the panelists have made little progress on the question of whom to vote for: a few, though, are now sure of who they will not support—the Liberals.

HALIFAX In a race that appears to be more and more about personalities, Alexa McDonough is enjoying an edge. Almost every panelist in this riding decried the BQ’s position as the official Opposition and— even though the community has never sent a New Democrat to Ottawa—a significant number said that McDonough would be their first choice for Opposition leader. The native Haligonian has “been around a lot longer than the other leaders,” noted Doreen Itwaru, a hospital manager. Preston Manning is the 50-year-old’s second choice, although she gives the Reform leader little credit when it comes to his knowledge of politics. “And I wouldn't know [Tory Leader Jean] Charest if I saw him on the streets,” she says.

Many panelists also agreed on gun control, with a strong majority supporting the government’s tougher legislation. Most said the issue should not be central in the campaign—better to spend more time discussing crime prevention. “It seems like the only ones being protected are the hookers and drug dealers,” said draftsman Dawn Sloane, 29, who started a local Neighborhood Watch program. “I think a strong position on crime would be a significant part of whom I vote for.”

Commentator Stephen Kimber, dean of journahsm at King’s College, notes that “McDonough is winning the battle of the lawn signs. She is really feisty—she has spirit that seems to be missing from the other parties.” And the general rejection of the Bloc as an Opposition party is understandable, he adds. “There is frustration with the Quebec issue. People feel there are other problems

English-Canadians reject the Bloc and worry about crime

that are being marginalized because the Bloc is only interested in one thing.”

BROSSARD/LA PRAIRIE

In this suburban riding south of Montreal, most voters favor the Bloc as an Opposition party. But that support is based as much on it keeping Quebec front and centre in national politics as on its separatist policies. “It’s important that Quebec be allowed to speak for itself at this point,” says insurance broker Benoît Bourbeau, “and Quebec can only do it if it’s the official Opposition.” As an alternative, Bourbeau, 36, supports Reform. “What’s his name—Preston Manning—he’s direct.” Crime, Bourbeau says, concerns him “enormously.” He adds that “criminals are better organized today than they ever were before. Think about the Hells Angels—it’s become a real transnational corporation.” Paulette Giddings, a social worker at the Montreal General Hospital, is also concerned about crime and believes Ottawa must take a bigger role in preventing it by helping youth. “Maybe the government should start setting up programs for these young people in their highschool years, give them a better sense of self-respect,” suggests Giddings, 49.

Longtime national affairs journalist Ron Lebel, a Maclean’s panel expert, says that a recent poll showed the Liberals and the Bloc neck and neck in Quebec. “But that was before the Parizeau bomb,” he notes. “Even [Bloc Leader Gilles] Duceppe has admitted that this will hurt his support.” And, he adds, “Bloc supporters seem to think that having a Quebec nationalist party in Ottawa puts pressure on the rest of Canada to make constitutional changes. Most think in terms of two nations with close economic links. They are not militant separatists—they don’t want a sudden confrontation with the rest of Canada.”

ST. PAUL’S In this central Toronto riding, which usually votes with the national trend, the contest is between Liberal candidate Carolyn Bennett, a well-known physician, and Tory Peter Atkins, a firefighter and son of Senator Norm Atkins. A majority of the panelists said that, when it comes to the legitimacy of the Bloc as the Opposition, a vote is a vote. Alison Meek, a 30-year-old graduate student, echoed such views when she said: “If they have the second-most seats, then of course they should continue—we may not like them, but this is a democracy.” As for campaign issues, virtually none of the panelists was concerned about gun control.

And although they live in the heart of the country’s largest city, most St. Paul’s panelists did not call for a tougher stance on crime. “I don’t want to see Toronto turn into the New York of the north, but I’m not sure if it’s as bad as it looks,” says Deborah Stiff, who is self-employed and in her 30s. Currently, she is leaning toward the Liberal’s Bennett who, she says, seems like a “people person.”

In fact, Bennett is a strong candidate, says commentator Robert Bothwell, professor of history at the University of Toronto, and to the extent personalities are a factor in the race, she is a “real plus” for the Liberals. Nor is he surprised by the local take on the Bloc as the official Opposition. “What’s the alternative?” he asks. “If Quebecers’ votes are denied, why should they participate in our political system? People who disagree are playing with fire. If there are substantially different rules for one group, we’ve negated one of Canada’s strongest hallmarks—that everyone is treated equally.”

CALGARY WES In a riding that supported Reform by a wide margin in the last election, a different trend now appears to be emerging. While it is not surprising that many panelists reject the Bloc as a viable Opposition for the whole country, a popular alternative is unexpected: McDonough. “I think Chrétien and Charest are riding the same bike, even though they don’t seem to know it,” says homemaker Barbara Watts, 44. In fact, she has little faith in any of the parties when it comes to dealing with big issues like crime. But Bob Becker, like a few other panelists in this riding, supports Charest as the best Opposition leader. “I think he would argue the national unity issue better than Preston Manning or Alexa,” says the engineer, who is in his 60s. “Unity is the really important issue.”

That growing preoccupation is somewhat unexpected, notes commentator Keith Archer, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, but Parizeau has pushed the matter to centre stage. “It’s a difficult situation,” Archer notes. “On the one hand,

there is a strong reservoir of affection for Quebec. But there is also impatience and a sense of powerlessness.” As for McDonough’s personal popularity, Archer notes that it is unlikely to translate into seats for the NDP. Instead, the fight will be between the Liberals and Reform, with Chretien’s party already enjoying widespread support for its fiscal policies. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Liberals doing pretty well here,” Archer concludes.

PORT MOODY/COQUITLAM

Voters in this Vancouver-area riding, a former NDP stronghold, are solidly opposed to the Bloc as the Opposition. They are deeply divided, however, over the best alternative, with about half choosing Manning and half partial to McDonough. BC Tel installer Bruce Shott believes Manning would be a good Opposition leader, “although he doesn’t have the spit and polish to be prime minister.” Shott 48, agrees with Reform’s plan to repeal Canada’s new gun control legislation. “I am a firearm owner and I resent the RCMP I breathing down my neck,” he says. He is q equally adamant about crime. The Young

1 Offenders Act is too lenient, he says, espe£ dally since crimes by the young appear to 3 be more serious than in the past.

2 At the other end of the spectrum are vo° ters like Ida Rollings, who works in sales.

The NDP’s McDonough, the 19-year-old

says, would be a good choice for Opposition leader because of her party’s national focus. And while she supports gun control, Rollings is also concerned about crime, especially youth crime. “I know a lot of people, people I attended school with, who have committed crimes and got off easy,” she observes. “It is a problem that we at the community level cannot stop. We need direction from a higher level.”

According to commentator Michael Howlett, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, most B.C. voters are more concerned about local issues than with the federal campaign. The Liberals, he points out, have done a good job of taking the sting out of regional irritants, such as the recent agreement with the province over fisheries. Their battle with the deficit has also deflated some of Reform’s support. “But crime has a pretty high profile,” Howlett says, pointing to a recent series of home invasions as a matter of deep concern. Parizeau’s revelations, on the other hand, have generated little excitement. “Most people here assumed that sort of thing was going on anyway,” Howlett says. “This just reinforces their views.” □

The Maclean’s panel responses are compiled with the participation of experts and students at five universities. In Halifax, Stephen Kimber, dean of journalism at King’s College, is assisted by Erin Pamela Greeno and Jaime Kathleen Little. Lindsay Crysler, director of journalism at Concordia University, and national affairs journalist Ron Lebel are supervising Jean-François Bégin and David Gambrill in Montreal. University of Toronto history professor Robert Bothwell is assisted by Kathleen Rasmussen and Ann Flanagan. At the University of Calgary, political science professor Keith Archer is overseeing the work of Carey Anne Hill and Mebs Kanji. At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B. C., Michael Howlett, professor of political science, and John Richards, professor of business, are assisted by Russell LaPointe and Colleen Wetherall.