As the campaign reached the midpoint, Paul Martin made unity an issue, then watched as Stephen Harper’s promises won more positive reviews
BY JOAN BRYDEN • Casting Paul Martin as Captain Canada in this election must’ve seemed a no-brainer to Liberal strategists. After all, the Liberal party has monopolized the national unity dossier in this country for decades, perpetually chosen as the party best able to hold the separatist threat at bay.
But a funny thing seems to have happened on the way to the Jan. 23 election. At the campaign midpoint, an analysis of newspaper coverage suggests Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has wrested the unity mantle away
from the Prime Minister. “Both Harper and the Conservatives are doing well in the national unity debate.. .presenting relatively clear policy proposals and, as a consequence, dominating an issue that Martin introduced,” says Stuart Soroka, co-director of McGill University’s Observatory on Media and Public Policy (OMPP), which conducted the study.
Martin got the unity ball rolling during last month’s televised debates, with his impassioned assertions that he would never allow Quebec separatists to break up the country by trickery. But it was Harper who subsequently picked up the ball and ran with it. Martin’s debate performance was “passionate” but he never moved beyond rhetorical flourishes (like asserting that fighting separatists was part of his DNA). “Policies seemed to be lacking so the momentum died,” said Soroka.
Harper, by contrast, followed up the debates with specific promises to give Quebec a seat at international forums, like UNESCO, where the province’s unique cultural and linguistic concerns are at stake, and to rectify the socalled fiscal imbalance, ensuring all provinces have sufficient money to fulfill their constitutional obligations to deliver health care and education programs. Although the Tories have little apparent voter support in Quebec, Harper’s proposals were well received in the province, winning an endorsement from Liberal Premier Jean Charest. “That the Conservatives came to quickly dominate coverage of national unity is quite telling,” said Soroka.
The conclusions are part of the OMPP’s 2006 Federal Election Newspaper Analysis project, carried in Maclean’s throughout the campaign. The OMPP tracks coverage in seven major dailies: the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, La Presse and Le Devoir. It tallies the number of mentions each leader and party receives, rates them as positive, negative or neutral, and then subtracts the percentage of negative mentions from the positive mentions to arrive at a “net tone” for the coverage.
During the first three weeks of the campaign, national unity was the fourth most topical issue, mentioned in about eight per cent of the newspaper reports and opinion pieces monitored. In the week following the Dec. 15 and 16 debates, however, national unity jumped to the top of the agenda, mentioned in 12 per cent of the coverage. The related intergovernmental affairs issue was mentioned in eight per cent, while taxes were at 10 per cent, and international affairs at nine.
Immediately following the debates, the net tone of the coverage of Martin improved to minus-three per cent from -15 per cent, reflecting reports of his strong debate performance, particularly on the unity file in the English encounter. At the same time, the Liberals’ net tone improved to -15 per cent from -23 per cent. However, Martin couldn’t sustain the momentum. By Christmas, the PM’s net tone had slid back to -11 per cent, though the party continued to improve to -13.
By contrast, Harper sustained a small drop in his net tone over the weekend after the debates. But that turned around the following week with the unveiling of his unity proposals. By Christmas, Harper’s net tone was plus-eight per cent, up three points from the previous week. His party, meanwhile, wound up the first half of the campaign with a net tone of plus-four per cent, up two points.
NDP Leader Jack Layton ended the first half with a net tone of plus-three per cent, his party with plus-two per cent. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe garnered a net tone of minus-three per cent, his party minus-seven per cent. M
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