The battle for Ontario

There are 99 seats, and no one has an edge


The battle for Ontario

There are 99 seats, and no one has an edge


The battle for Ontario


There are 99 seats, and no one has an edge

It was a trial run before the coming election—the unofficial debut of the Conservatives’ campaign theme. In Toronto last week, before 1,300 blue-chip luncheon guests at the Canadian Club and the Empire Club of Canada, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney praised his government’s achievements in federal-provincial relations and economic management. Then, in a carefully scripted phrase, devised after months of Conservative polls and encounter groups, he delivered his pitch for Ontario votes. Said Mulroney: “The question in the next election is an obvious one: which group can provide the leadership that Canada needs to manage change in our national interest?” Mulroney’s audience erupted into a one-minute ovation. Organizers presented him with a Toronto Blue Jays cap and an Empire Club tie. The battle for Ontario’s 99 ridings had begun.

In the jargon of political strategists, the Ontario poll “numbers” are moving—and the shift is staggering. After more than a year at the top of the Gallup poll in Ontario, the federal Liberal party has suddenly lost its comfortable margin of support. Last July, the Liberals held 47 per cent of the province’s decided voters, the New Democrats had 27 per cent, and the Conservatives attracted 25 per cent. Now, in a rapid shift, the September Gallup poll, conducted in 1,032 homes from Sept. 7 to 10 and released two weeks ago, puts the Liberals at 38 per cent, the Conservatives at 37 per cent and the NDP at 25 per cent. In effect, within two months, the gap between the Conservatives and the Liberals has

declined from 22 points to a virtual -

dead heat because the poll is accurate within a four-percentage-point margin. At the same time, Maclean’s has learned that private Conservative polls put the Tories ahead of the Liberals everywhere in Ontario but Metropolitan Toronto, with its critical 33 seats.

That remarkable switch in allegiance has transformed Ontario from a Liberal stronghold into the upcoming election’s key political battleground: one-third of the country’s ridings suddenly appeared to be within reach of all three parties. The Conservatives now claim that they can win at least 40 of the province’s 99 seats—and probably secure another majority in the 295-seat Parliament. The Liberals counter that they are still

ahead—and can regain their massive lead in Ontario. They say that they can increase their current 14-seat standing to at least 50 seats, reducing the Conservatives to a minority government or winning a minority for

themselves. The New Democrats maintain that they can attract disgruntled Liberal supporters—and increase their number from 13 in Ontario. Said Robin Sears, the NDP’s deputy campaign chairman: “Ontario is the big unclaimed prize—the dogfight of the century. We will spend an enormous amount of time and money in Ontario.”

Strategists from all three parties agree on the reasons for the change in their election prospects. In the past several months, the Conservative government dominated the nation’s attention with dramatic program announcements, ranging from $129 million for AIDS research to $153 million for Prairie drought relief. Even last week, as Liberal

Leader John Turner promised a $5-billion program to upgrade aging municipal facilities, Mulroney—in an emotional ceremony on Parliament Hill—created a $291-million compensation fund for Japanese Canadians interned during the Second World War. Said veteran Ontario Liberal campaign chairman Norman MacLeod: “The Tories have had control over the agenda. If you cannot move the polls playing Santa Claus, you are indeed in real trouble.”

As well, many Conservative announcements specifically appealed to Ontario groups that had abandoned the Tories in the wake of the 1984 federal election. The party gradually lost support among urban voters, especially well-educated professionals, who were disturbed by Conservative scandals. The party’s popularity was also low among groups that tend to concentrate in Metropolitan Toronto and that traditionally have the least affinity for the Conservatives: ethnic voters, working women and the poor.

To remedy those problems, the Conservatives have introduced a litany of attractive proposals: $1 billion for an expanded national day care program; $110 million to combat illiteracy; new multiculturalism legislation to promote the use of languages other than English and French; and the appointment of a new minister of state for housing, Ontario MP John McDermid. Said a senior Liberal planner: “Mulroney is pushing all the hot buttons for the urban areas, from day care to the environment. You can almost see the Conservatives ticking them off, one at a time.”

Leadership issues also appear to have influenced the

voters. Because of that,

Conservative strategists have urged Mulroney to avoid exaggerated rhetoric—and they are portraying him as the most competent manager of change. The Tories’ Ontario campaign chairman, William McAleer, told Maclean’s, “The voters are beginning to realize that there is a high degree of management capability in the administration—and they are starting to give credit to the Prime Minister.”

In contrast, political problems have troubled Liberal Leader John Turner. The setbacks included the publication of a highly critical chronicle of his leadership, Reign of Error, by Ottawa Citizen parliamentary writer Greg Weston. Said MacLeod: “I am glad

that book did not come out during the first week of the campaign. To counteract it, Turner has to campaign visibly and effectively. We cannot run a peekaboo campaign.”

The Ontario campaign will be critical for all three parties. To the Liberals, it represents the best chance to recapture the voters

who are swinging between them and the Conservatives. Senior Liberal strategists say that the party is counting on help from popular Premier David Peterson and his formidable election machine. As well, Turner will present a nine-pronged program including plans for affordable housing and job retraining. The Liberal leader will also advocate tax reform—and denounce the increases in personal income taxes since 1984, as well as Conservative plans to expand sales taxes, using a complicated new system.

In addition to those proposals, the party will concentrate upon two major “negative”

themes in the upcoming race. For one thing, Liberals will continue to oppose the CanadaU.S. free trade treaty with appeals to Canadian nationalists and with vivid examples of the treaty’s potentially harmful effects. For another, they will provide what they claim are glaring examples of Mulroney’s policy

changes, such as his former opposition to free trade, in an attempt to undermine his credibility.

Senior Liberals say that those two approaches will have particular appeal for Ontario voters because private polls show that they have major doubts about free trade and about Mulroney’s leadership qualities. They added that if the campaign works, the Tories will drop back to their earlier low standings in Ontario. Otherwise, the Tories would win an overall majority, and its size would depend on the number of Ontario seats.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have de-

vised a softer, potentially more risky strategy. In speech after speech, Mulroney will depict his government as the party that has a better understanding of where the country has to go—and how it has to get there. Senior Tory organizers said that the Prime Minister will claim that the Conservatives can provide new, more competent solutions for economic and social problems than the two opposition parties. To win the poor and ethnic voters, for one, he has promoted increased literacy as a promising method of escape from the trap of welfare. To win the support of well-heeled professionals, he has promoted free trade as an economic policy for the future, arguing that his opponents are wedded to such failed economic prescriptions as protectionism. The Tories will stress the claim that there is a real choice in the campaign, not just what one insider described as the evil of three lessers.

Meanwhile, the New Democrats targeted individual ridings around the province. Senior members of all three parties say that the NDP will likely hold its current 13 seats, largely in downtown urban centres and the North. NDP officials also claim that the party has a good chance of winning at least seven additional seats, including ridings in Sudbury in the North and in Scarborough and Pickering, both in the Toronto area—especially if the Liberals do not regain their lost support. If both the Liberals and the Tories wage lacklustre campaigns, that total could be higher.

The key to the NDP strategy is party leader Edward Broadbent, whose personal popularity has consistently outranked that of his party, especially in Ontario. That popularity may make the difference between winning and losing key seats. As a result, NDP advertising will feature the leader in the forefront of all commercials. As Brian Harling, the Ontario chairman of the NDP’S election planning committee, told Maclean’s, “We will talk about Broadbent, his vision for Canada and why that is important to Canada.”

The New Democrats will also emphasize the concept of fairness. Harling pointed out that both the Liberals and the New Democrats oppose the free trade treaty, “so we share that issue.” As a result, to distinguish themselves from the Liberals, the New Democrats plan to link the free trade dispute with the fairness issue. Said Harling: “The key for us is to get the message through to the voter: who has your best interests at heart? Free trade is just a part of that: the notion that ordinary people will be hurt if the deal goes through.”

For Ontario voters, those are the three competing and compelling visions that will collide on the campaign trail within weeks, likely days. With 99 seats at stake, the risks are enormous. For the nation, the outcome will likely determine the face of the next government.