Election 2000

Desperate Measures

For the Conservatives and New Democrats, the campaign has come down to a battle for survival

Julian Beltrame November 20 2000
Election 2000

Desperate Measures

For the Conservatives and New Democrats, the campaign has come down to a battle for survival

Julian Beltrame November 20 2000

Desperate Measures

Election 2000

Julian Beltrame

in Ottawa

Tory national campaign manager John Laschinger is having fun trying to revive a critically ill patient. Taped on the door of Progressive Conservative party headquarters in Ottawa is a reworked version of the now-famous Joe Canadian beer commercial, this time with Joe Clark proudly proclaiming “I am Conservative.” On his office wall, Laschinger has pinned a list of “Top 10 reasons Jean Chrétien called the election.” No. 1 is Paul Martin. And with a twinkle in the eye, Laschinger shows off a raft of e-mails congratulating him on the cheekiest television ads of this campaign season. Titled “Jean Chrétiens Greatest Lies” and “Jean Chrétiens Red Book Boogie,” the two spots have the look of the old K-tel commercials, featuring a shrillsounding announcer ostensibly selling CDs of the Prime Minister’s broken promises as if they were well-known tunes. They’re designed to elicit a laugh, but like Laschinger himself, there is a deadly serious intent behind the joking.

For the Conservatives and New Democrats, the campaign has come down to a battle for survival

“Look,” he says, “we’ve run a 2V2-week error-free campaign and we haven’t gotten noticed. I had to break through the clutter. I had to shake the tree.”

The question is whether any of the fruit from the shaken tree—voters—is landing in the Tory basket. An Environics Research Group poll released last week showed the party at an agonizing eight per cent nationally, in a dead heat for the bottom with the equally hapless New Democrats, results pretty much unchanged since the race began. If the polls are right, Canadians could be witnessing the last hurrah—or, rather, gasp—of the party that, under John A. Macdonald, helped build the railway that opened up the West near the end of the 19th century and, under Brian Mulroney, negotiated a freetrade agreement that helped open the continent to Canadian goods near the end of the 20th.

For the NDP, the situation is no less grave. Long seen as the conscience of Canadian politics and the true creator of Canada’s treasured medicare system, the party is fading away from lack of interest. Last week, the NDP went negative in a calculated play for attention. Mocking Chrétiens and Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day’s penchant for macho games, leader Alexa McDonough suggested that “repeated doses of testosterone” had dulled their minds. A few days earlier, she suggested the two front-runners were “stupid” for failing to see health care, not taxes, as the major election issue. Former party leader Ed Broadbent, at an event in The Pas, Man., went even further, blasting Chrétien as “the voice of hypocrisy, total, utter hypocrisy.” The tactic attracts headlines, but historian Michael Bliss senses a what-have-we-got-to-lose undertone to the attacks. “Somebody has convinced them this is what you do when you’re desperate,” says Bliss, “and the desperation shows.”

But both parties have cause for hope, slim as it may be. The Liberals and Alliance have hardly run flawless campaigns. Chrétien started the election by suggesting Canadians who hadn’t gone to university were not good citizens and has yet to come up with a compelling justification for calling an early vote. Day, in turn, reversed the direction of the Niagara River in a laboured reference to the north-south flow of Canadian talent. And like Reformers of the past, Alliance members have once again shown a disturbing tendency to take direct aim at their own feet. From a leaked party document suggesting referendums could be held on the basis of fewer than 400,000 signatures on a petition, to MP Jason Kenneys musing about expanded private, forprofit health-care services, to one Toronto candidate’s characterization of homosexuals as deviants, Day has been forced to play defence—mostly in his own end of the field.

But if that is helping the Tories and New Democrats, it isn’t showing yet. Chrétien has declared that the contest is between his Liberals and Day’s Alliance, except in Quebec, where the Liberals are in a two-way tussle with the Bloc Québécois (page 42). That relegates the Tories and NDP to the sidelines nationally. In such a scenario, the two rump parties’ biggest appeal to voters is that, in the event of a minority government, one or both could suddenly be relevant again. But it’s hardly the stuff to excite voters’ imaginations. And seasoned observers doubted that even strong performances from Clark and McDonough in last week’s leaders’ debates were likely to change the election’s dynamics. “Even if they manage to push the Liberals off the pedestal, the votes are going to Day,” said Darrell Bricker, president of public affairs at the Ipsos-Reid polling firm. “Nobody’s paying attention to Joe and Alexa.”

How did it come to this? In retrospect, 1993 may have been the year the Tories and NDP caught a lingering but terminal disease. Fed up with Mulroney’s Tories, and unimpressed by Mulroney successor Kim Campbell, Canadians punished the party brutally, reducing it to a paltry two seats. Even worse for the future, the Mulroney Tory coalition had split into two big factions, with Reformers in the West and the Bloc Québécois in Quebec, erecting formidable regional barriers to the road back from oblivion. The NDP, coming off their best showing— the 43 seats they won in 1988—were sideswiped by the rush to anoint Chrétiens Liberals, leaving them with a scant nine seats. The 1997 election was a false spring for the NDP and the Tories, which rebounded modestly on the strength of a protest vote in Atlantic Canada against Liberal cuts to employment insurance.

But since then, neither Clark nor McDonough has been able to rise above their respective party’s regional rump status. Clark dithered for close to two years over whether to enter the House of Commons via a byelection, and was judged out of step in opposing the Clarity Act setting the federal ground rules on future Quebec referendums. McDonough proved she is no Canadian version of Britain’s Tony Blair, and has been unable to import New Labour’s more business-friendly Third Way to Canada. McDonough is the only national party leader not to offer substantive tax cuts. “The NDP’s policy on taxes is fundamentally flawed,” says Bricker. “They haven’t grasped that it’s not only the rich who like tax cuts, the people who really love tax cuts are the lower-middle class, their natural constituency.”

Chrétien has relegated the Tories and the NDP to the fringes of national politics

The NDP is clearly at a crossroads, unsure whether the Third Way or the Old Way leads them back to relevance, and fearful both may be dead ends. Former Manitoba NDP premier Howard Pawley, now Stanley Knowles Professor of Canadian Studies at Waterloo University in Ontario, believes Blairism wouldn’t work for the NDP, since the Canadian centre is already occupied by the Liberals and Blair had more ideological room to manoeuvre, with only Britain’s Tories to contend with. Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove, who criticized McDonough for exploring a move to the centre, argues for the fiery socialism of the past. “If I was leader, I’d talk about nationalizing one of the oil companies,’ he insists. “People say the public’s not there, but what we need is a leader willing to articulate the issues and not buy the logic of the Reform party.” Told of Hargrove’s comments, the more moderate Broadbent sighed: “Buzz has been smoking something funny, and you can quote me on that.”

Clark’s humiliation may be as complete as it is unique. The former prime minister—for nine months in 19791980 —came out of retirement in 1998 thinking he could restore the Tories to their glory years. Instead, he seems to be reliving the past. He had to quell a perceived leadership review drive by former party president Peter Van Loan this fall and oversee the steady flow of Tory blood to the Alliance and the Liberals. The ultimate selfeffacement came early in the campaign, when he embraced Mulroney at a Toronto fund-raiser, reviving memories of Mulroney’s public backing of Clark in the early 1980s—while he was plotting to replace him.

Finally, the recycled Tory leader is widely expected to lose his race for Calgary Centre on Nov. 27, which to some may be seen as an act of mercy, speeding another exit from public life. Harvie Andre, who once sat in the same cabinet with Clark, cautions against writing off his former colleague too early. “It’s an uphill battle,” he concedes. But Andre says Calgary Centre could go against the Alliance tide, and he should know: he held the riding for 21 years until his retirement seven years ago. “Don’t forget the leadership factor,” he adds. “There’s plenty of examples of leaders winning their seats against all odds, including John Turner and Jean Chrétien.”

Tory and NDP strategists are loath to admit it, but simple survival is the sole objective in this election. The danger for the Tories is that they elect a handful of members in Atlantic Canada, then suffer a trickle of defections similar to those of the past year until the party has no more presence in the House. With a limited budget, Laschinger is concentrating his forces and television ads on regional stations Down East, where the party has 13 seats to defend, including those of popular local members Elsie Wayne in Saint John, N.B., and Peter MacKay in Nova Scotia’s Pictou-AntigonishGuysborough. But he is also scheduling a lot of time in Ontario for Clark, as well as airtime for paid advertising. It may seem like a waste of meagre resources, but if the party is to retain its conceit of being a national force, an Ontario presence is essential. “It’s where the votes are,” says Laschinger hopefully. “If this thing breaks, I’ve got to be there to pick them up.”

An even wider choice on Nov. 27

Six smaller political parties are also contesting the election:

• The Green Party of Canada

Dedicated to health and environmental issues in order to create a just and ecologically sound economy. Fielding 111 candidates.

• The Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada Based on communist principles, it calls for renewal in politics, dominated by people, not parties. Fielding 84 candidates.

• The Marijuana Party of Canada Committed to the legalization of cannabis. Fielding 73 candidates.

• The Canadian Action Party

Dedicated to the cause of Canadian economic sovereignty, and headed byTmdeau-era cabinet minister Paul Hellyer. Fielding 70 candidates.

• The Natural Law Party of Canada Believes that conflict-free politics and yogic flying will bring Canada into harmony with natural law. Fielding 69 candidates.

• The Communist Party of Canada Campaigns for working people in the name of peace, democracy and socialism. Fielding 52 candidates.

Tories look to New Brunswick, where a near-dead party bounced back

The NDP’s strategy is not so much based on regional appeal as on brandname recognition of the party’s markettested MPs. The fact is that few Canadians vote for the New Democratic Party or its leader, but they repeatedly flock to their constituency-oriented local MPs, says Agar Adamson, a political science professor at Acadia University. “I don’t think Alexa will have the coattails in the Atlantic this year,” he says, but expects her to hold her Halifax seat. He also gives a fighting chance to Peter Stoffer in Sackville-Eastern Shore and Peter Mancini in blue-collar Sydney-Victoria, two MPs who have worked their ridings hard since their unexpected election 3V2 years ago. Out west, Bill Blaikie, Nelson Riis and Svend Robinson have been fixtures for two decades or more. “These people were left standing in 1993 when we fell below party status, and they’ll be standing after Nov. 27,” predicts NDP campaign director Dennis Young.

Ironically, the dependence on the star power of local MPs underscores the party’s lack of broad appeal. Pawley, the son of Methodist parents from the “social gospel” school of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the NDP’s precursor, remembers when he joined the party in 1954 at the tender age of 19. At the time, idealistic youth on the left joined political parties like the CCF to work for social justice, he says. “Now, youths on the left are demonstrating, they get involved in various interest-group activities. They are very cynical about all the parties.” At Tory headquarters, Laschinger is too busy planning what he hopes will be the most amazing rescue mission in Canadian political history to spend time reminiscing about the good old days. He’s done it once before, he says, clicking his computer to tracking polls he conducted as a key tactician for provincial Tory Bernard Lord’s stunning 1999 victory campaign over the entrenched Liberal government in New Brunswick. The red-and-blue squiggles on the black screen show Lord’s numbers flatlined, well below those of Camille Theriault’s Liberals, until the two faced off in a televised debate. Then the blue line starts to rise, crosses over the red, and continues upward. The New Brunswick Tories were written off in 1987, when Richard Hatfield lost all 58 seats. And like the federal Tories, the provincial party was briefly eclipsed by a right-wing upstart, in that case the Confederation of Regions. The point is made. Clearly, Laschinger believes lightning can strike twice.

With John Geddes in Ottawa

John Geddes