Canada

Restless Voters

After a nasty, negative campaign, pollsters found the Ontario electorate closely divided on its options

Robert Sheppard June 7 1999
Canada

Restless Voters

After a nasty, negative campaign, pollsters found the Ontario electorate closely divided on its options

Robert Sheppard June 7 1999

Restless Voters

Canada

After a nasty, negative campaign, pollsters found the Ontario electorate closely divided on its options

Robert Sheppard

Caution, voters ahead. What promised to have been a full-throated electoral season with provincial campaigns sprouting like crabgrass has withered somewhat under the cool spring gaze of a wary electorate. Incumbent governments in the West, first in Manitoba, then last week in Saskatchewan, postponed their campaign rendezvous until at least the fall when the public mood might be more accommodating. Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow cited a still unsettled labour dispute with provincial nurses for his non-call, but it was surely a bitter pill to swallow: the ruling

NDP, and its predecessor, the CCF, have the enviable record of winning every June election, all eight of them, since the party first came to power in 1944.

For those incumbents already in the pool, the water wasn’t any warmer. In New Brunswick’s first post-Frank McKenna election, the governing Liberals, heading towards the June 7 vote, watched in dismay as their prewrit lead was eaten away—by upstart Conservative Leader Bernard Lord, who looks younger yet acts older than his 33 years (page 38). And in Ontario, in one of the nastier slanging matches in recent outings, Conservative Premier Mike Harris and his Liberal opponent, Dalton McGuinty, were locked in a race that appeared closer than anyone had expected.

An Environics Research Group Ltd. poll for the CBC, released on Friday—six days before the June 3 vote—gave Harris’s Conservatives 42-per-cent support among decided voters, compared with the Liberals’ 41 per cent and a modestly resurgent NDP with 16. On Saturday, however, an Angus Reid poll for The Globe and Mail showed the Tories with an eight-point lead—45 per cent to 37 for the Liberals and 18 for the New Democrats.

While the Reid poll suggested a second majority Harris government, the Environics poll unsettled the Tories. Only a few days earlier, Harris was campaigning on cozy platitudes as if he had the election well in hand, with the Liberals written off on the basis of a flat performance by McGuinty in the May 18 televised leaders’ debate. Suddenly, the talk shifted to the possibility of a minority government in Canada’s largest province, with union leaders like Marshall Jarvis of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association stiffening the third-party NDP s resolve not to support Harris under any circumstances.

Under the Environics scenario, the NDP would hold the balance of power in a minority legislature with only seven of the 103 seats, according to a projection by political consultants G. P. Murray Research. But Harris professed to be unperturbed. “I’m not in trouble,” he told a radio audience, as he continued to campaign in a noticeably low-key style, calling his opponents by their first names and steering clear of the trash talk that had been the hallmark of all three leaders in the campaign’s opening weeks. But, University of Toronto political scientist Graham White observed, “the Environics poll is good news for the opposition parties in that the field is literally wide open to all sorts of possibilities,” even though, he added, “it is not clear where the momentum is going.”

The latest polls showed a shift from both front-runners to the NDP, the likely result of a strong debate performance by leader Howard Hampton. That brought the NDP back from the brink of obliteration to semi-respectability—and probably ensured much closer fights in about 35 ridings. After some initial waffling, Hampton clearly stated he would not back a minority Harris government. But stepping up the pressure from his side of the fence, McGuinty declared he would not bow to a key Hampton demand—that the 30-percent Harris tax cut be rolled back for the wealthiest six per cent of Ontarians

—if he was faced with heading a minority Liberal government. “I won’t raise taxes to get into the premier’s chair,” he said.

While the party leaders jockey for bargaining position, the campaign itself has an air of unreality about it. Dogged by protesters at almost every stop, as were premiers Bob Rae and David Peterson before him, Harris has stuck to trusted locales—factory tours, media outlets and chamber of commerce luncheons—with a heavy police presence to keep agitators away. At a recent stop in Thornhill, just north of Toronto, those attending a Harris luncheon address in a banquet hall had to run the gamut of three police checks before arriving at the door.

By contrast, the opposition leaders have wandered the province like tourists, plunging into small crowds at shopping malls with TV cameras in tow. Following Harris into Thornhill, McGuinty held a media scrum in the aisles of a Shoppers Drug Mart, with bewildered salesclerks looking on. But the Liberal leader has been given anything but a free ride. A small taste of the tone of the campaign: Toronto radio station CFRB put up a cardboard cutout of McGuinty for a panel of reporters to throw caustic questions at because he passed up the station for a news conference elsewhere.

Experts have given the campaign a failing grade. White says he can’t recall an Ontario election where the range of issues under debate has been so narrow—limited almost exclusively to tax cuts, health care and education. Political scientist Sid Noel at the University of Western Ontario says his lasting impression is of a campaign that has been

“much dumber than most” and filled with what party strategists call “issue mentioning”: leaders mouthing the same few slogans over and over again.

But what most Ontarians are likely to remember is the unremitting barrage of attack ads. (By most estimates, at least $6 million in election advertising will have flooded the airwaves over the four-week campaign, most of it from the three main parties, but at least some from other groups like the Toronto Transit Commission, the Building Trades Council, the Canadian Auto Workers and teachers’ unions.) A largely U.S. phenomenon, the aggressive attack on an opponent’s record or character has been part of Ontario’s political landscape at least since 1990, when the NDP shaped a hard-hitting commercial in the form of a newscast to recount the many little scandals of David Peterson’s Liberal government.

This time around, the Tories have portrayed McGuinty as “a weak leader who is just not up to the job.” The Grits have labelled Harris “Mean, Mad Mike.” (It took the Liberals until the final week of the campaign to show a television ad with their own leader in it.) Last week, Liberal sources said there was still one big negative commercial in the bag— which they called the “chaos ad”—that might yet be rolled out in the final days of the campaign.

Are negative ads effective? After pioneering the genre in Ontario, the NDP did win the 1990 election. “American research says negative ads work because people remember them,” notes political scientist Robert MacDermid of Toron tos York University. “Of course, the other American finding is that these kinds of ads tend to depress voter turnout: they turn people off so they just don’t bother voting.” But four weeks of did-not, didtoo partisan advertising may not be enough to turn off civic-minded Ontarians. They have had four years of Harris reforms to education, health care and government to mull over—and the battle lines are tightly drawn. Ell