TESTING THE NINETIES
A FED-UP PUBLIC DIRECTS ITS RESENTMENT AT ONTARIO'S POLITICIANS
Rae campaigning in a Hamilton market; Peterson (opposite) in Toronto's Rouge River Park: high taxes and turmoil
It began as a picture-perfect campaign outing along the banks of the brackish Rouge River in Metro Toronto. Sporting jeans and a red sweatshirt, with TV cameras in tow, Ontario Premier David Peterson tramped across scenic trails in an area his government had designated as a 10,500-acre provincial park. For the premier, it was a chance to show off how much the Liberals have done for the environment—and for the voters—before the Sept. 6 election. Then, Marilyn Pitcher darted into the picture. Spotting the red signs and the buses shimmering in the August haze, she nudged her way before the cameras to ask Peterson about Metro Toronto council plans to install a garbage dump near the park. “You made this a
park: that is great,” said the union representative and 16-year neighborhood resident. “But why don’t you go a step further and say that there will not be a dump here?” Peterson pinned the responsibility for that decision on Metro council. That led Pitcher to respond that he did not have an answer to her question. BoüT the protester and the mildly irritated premier made the evening news.
Such encounters are Peterson’s welcome to the new politics of the 1990s. Midway through the first full-blown Canadian election campaign of the new decade, Peterson is already tasting the bitter fruits of the electorate’s simmering anger. From the very minute that the premier called the election on July 30, protesters seized by special issues have dogged his path. Teach-
ers, lawyers, civil servants, environmentalists, fired workers and doctors have all targeted the campaigning premier. To tap that public anger, both the Conservative party and the New Democratic Party are running relentlessly negative campaigns. As a result, the Liberals’ steadily high standing in the polls since their sweeping election victory in September, 1987, is apparently dropping.
Phenomenon: It is a phenomenon likely to dismay leaders in other provinces, as well. Manitoba is already in the grip of an election campaign leading to a vote on Sept. 11. The governments of British Columbia and Saskatchewan are also likely to go to the polls in the near future. They will all soon become aware of what political experts are warning: voters in every part of the country are fed up with high taxes, constitutional turmoil and economic uncertainty—and they will vent their frustrations upon politicians of every stripe. Said pollster Michael Adams, president of Toronto-based Environics Research Group Ltd.: “Politicians are not in high regard, and political institutions are at a fairly low level of credibility. Essentially, if you ask people what government does these days, they would tell you that government taxes people.”
Peterson does not appear to be in serious trouble. He held 93 seats in the 130-seat legislature against the NDP’S 19 seats, the Tories’ 17 seats and one vacancy. But, Adams added, “In other provinces, you could see voters turfing out the incumbents, actually saying, ‘Let’s throw the scoundrels out.’ ”
Amid that highly charged atmosphere, Peterson must confront the new economic and constitutional realities of Canada in the 1990s. On the constitutional front, all provinces must devise negotiating positions in the wake of the June 23 demise of the Meech Lake accord. That agreement would have shifted powers from Ottawa to all provinces to win Quebec’s acceptance of the Canadian Constitution. Although Peterson was a firm supporter of the accord, he now embraces Ontario’s traditional role as the defender of a strong central government. On the economic front, wealthy Ontario is finally feeling the pinch of the country’s economic slowdown. The provincial unemployment rate in July hit 6.5 per cent; the number of business bankruptcies soared by 54 per cent during the first six months of 1990 (page 18). In response, Peterson has centred his campaign on his record of economic stewardship.
Most importantly, however, Peterson will have to defuse that rage at politicians and the political process in the face of an opposition determined to fuel voters’ wrath—and to focus it on the Liberal record. In an unexpectedly combative single-note campaign, Conservative Leader Michael Harris is hammering the government with daily recitals of the Peterson tax increases, charging that provincial tax revenues from all sources have risen 132 per cent since the Liberals first formed a minority government in 1985. The New Democrats, in turn, are insisting that ordinary voters have not received value for that money. Day after day, Bob Rae attacks Peterson with toughly worded statements that flash across TV screens: “Liberals sell out to developers”; “Rental complex demonstrates Liberal rent-review ripoff.”
Responsive: Those messages have apparently struck a responsive chord. Conservative campaign chairman John Laschinger told Maclean ’s that, according to his private polls, the Liberals have fallen almost 10 percentage points during the first 16 days of the campaign. He later released a Conservative poll by Decima Research, conducted between Aug. 11 and 13. The telephone survey of 500 Ontarians put the Liberals at 40 per cent of the decided vote, the New Democrats at 30 per cent and the Tories at 28 per cent. “My sense is that Peterson is on the wrong edge of a lot of issues,” said Laschinger. “Our campaign is very simple: we had a reasonably narrow window on taxation and we are going right through it—just like the eye of the needle. It is winning a lot of points.”
Still, the opposition parties have their own problems. Demonstrators have also disrupted their campaigns, perhaps as a pointed reminder that public disillusionment extends to all politicians. The affable Harris is a relative unknown: he was only elected as party leader on May 12. To add to his problems, his taxation issue is a double-edged sword. It is the federal Conservatives who introduced the seven-per-cent Goods and Services Tax scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1. Harris has also espoused such unpopular measures as user fees for every patient who visits a doctor. The polished Rae, in turn, has to disarm opponents who charge that socialists are big spenders. So far, the NDP leader has concentrated his campaign upon the Liberals. When the leader does introduce an NDP
PROTESTERS HIJACK THE CAMPAIGN AGENDA AND CAPTURE HEADLINES
platform, he may lose some tax-weary supporters (page 19). Argued Liberal strategy chairman David MacNaughton: “There is no question that this is not a cakewalk. But it still becomes a question of who do you really believe in the final analysis is best able to handle the issue.”
The Liberals are counting upon their record—and upon the voters’ high personal regard for Peterson—to provide the answer to that question. Liberal polls prior to the election call indicated that Ontarians were primarily concerned about economic issues, especially the high level of taxation and the prospect of a recession. As a result, the Liberal campaign is designed to show that they are careful economic stewards—and that they are delivering value for the voters’ tax dollars.
Management: Low-key and likable, Peterson has hopped aboard a tractor, donned a grocer’s green jacket and clambered into a canoe to punctuate his basic campaign message of “good management.” He emphasizes that Ontario had a $90-million provincial budget surplus in 1989-1990—leaving the province well positioned to cushion its voters from the worst ravages of an economic downturn. As well, Liberal news releases claim no fewer than 66 achievements, ranging from $2 billion for provincial highway construction to the $210-million New Ventures program designed to -
encourage small-business start-ups.
The premier has also returned to the traditional Ontario call for a strong central government. Two weeks ago, in a major address to a Toronto business audience, Peterson demanded that Ottawa retain the necessary powers “to advance and defend national interests.” He also insisted that future constitutional changes must involve Ottawa and all 10 provinces—a pointed attack on Quebec’s attempt to negotiate additional amendments through bilateral talks with Ottawa. Last week, in an interview with Maclean ’s, Peterson reinforced that position: “Ontario is going to use its influence and its weight and its financial muscle to make sure that our interests are protected” (page 21).
Peterson’s stand, says Thomas Courchene, the director of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University, reflects a shift in Canadian politics. “In the past,” he noted, “Ontario could
be pro-Canadian, knowing that Canada would always largely act in Ontario’s interests because Ontario was so dominant. But the federal government’s authority has eroded so much in the post-Meech Lake era that Ontario has to start exerting its own authority and its own influence. It can no longer assume that what is good for Canada is good for Ontario.”
Those two planks—careful economic and constitutional stewardship—constitute the core of the Liberals’ campaign. There is a
problem, however: few Ontario residents seem to have noticed. Almost every day, Peterson has been swamped by protesters who capture headlines and hijack the agenda. In one incident last week, the premier unveiled a $ 19-million Rural Ventures Fund to aid the development of innovative agricultural products. But the announcement was upstaged because 30 angry autoworkers who have been"locked out of their jobs in a labor dispute crowded the campaign bus and grabbed the headlines. Said a Liberal strategist: “It is nice to have a single issue that sticks as your issue. This time, there has not really been anything that has stuck.”
Both opposition parties are attempting to fill the void. Day after day, in a punchy singletheme campaign, the Conservatives have repeated their message that the Liberals tax too much. Tory poll data indicate that 64 per cent of the respondents believed that the provincial
Liberals would raise taxes if they won another majority, 29 per cent believed that they would not change taxes, and a mere five per cent believed that they would lower them. As well; 79 per cent of the respondents “somewhat” or “totally” agreed that high taxes threaten the province’s economic health. Armed with th data, Tory leader Harris has concentrated upon a different aspect of tax policy ea#te campaign day. On one day last week, he emphasized that private capital should be employed tit construct subway lines, schools and sewer systems. “Higher taxes to pay for it all completely stifle our ability to compete,” said Harris. Tory ads stress the same message. In one, a tiny piggy bank is locked in a vise undgr the caption “Don’t let Peterson put the squeeze on you again.”
That message strikes a responsive chord—but the Conservative campaign has its own weaknesses. Laschinger concedes that it is difficult to concoct a different taxation message for every day of the campaign. As well, the voters may respond the message, but many may have doubts about the meg senger. Harris, as a relatively unknown right-wing TofjT from Nipissing, in the province’s rural north, is likely to have little appeal to many urban voters. The provincial Conservative party itself is a, mere shadow of the giant that ruled Ontario for 42 years from 1943 to 1985. The deeply indebted Tories g running a $ 1.6-million cairn 2paign when their legal limit is $2.2 million, focusing their N limited resources on only 50 I of the province’s 130 ridings,., 5 Last week, only 10 voters I attended the nomination u meeting of Tory candidate Denis Latulippe in the north em riding of Algoma.
Harris is also the target of protesters. As he canvassed Toronto voters last week, a Greeny peace member insisted that he answer 12 questions on the environment. Minutes later, handful of voters demanded the immediate completion of a local subway extension. When courier Jason Ready, 20, asked about the high cost of homes, Harris said that housing prices “are a function of taxation and supply.” Frustrated, Ready later complained that no party’ has the answer to his problem: “There does no seem to be anybody who wants to help the middle class.”
The NDP campaign is targeted at just such disillusioned voters. Strategists have concluded that Ontario voters are fed up with high taxes and vaguely disappointed with the gov* emment’s performance. As a result, the NDP campaign has announced few specific policy initiatives to ensure that the public does not
dismiss it as a big spender—and a big taxer. Instead, it has emphasized Liberal failings— through a well-organized series of denunciations—in order to harden anti-government hostility. In one early August speech before an automobile-wrecking firm in Thunder Bay, Rae 4$)ld his audience that Peterson promised a “very specific plan” in 1987 to reduce automobile insurance rates. Then, he dismissed last spring’s no-fault automobile insurance legislation as an “$800-million giveaway to insurance corporations which both reduced benefits and increased premiums.” Charged NDP campaign director David Agnew: “The theme is: the agenda has been hijacked by a party that has ¿old out to some very powerful interests.”
That largely negative campaign is unusual, and perhaps risky, for Ontario’s New Democrats. Fairly or unfairly, it is difficult for the party to jettison the public perception that socialists spend more tax dollars. Meanwhile, Rae has come under increasing pressure to ^pell out his own platform. Last week, callers to a Toronto hotline show pushed Rae for specific policies to protect the environment and punish polluters, to provide affordable housing and to Foster tourism. In response, Rae has promised specific policies later in the campaign, arguing that voters are “very skeptical” about politicians who make daily promises.
^Discontent: In the end, the Liberals, if chastened, are widely expected to survive their summer of public discontent—if only because the party electoral machine is superbly tuned and the voters are clearly angry with everyone and everything. MacNaughton points out that, although voters are disturbed about high taxes, -shey also continue to demand more government services. Health costs, for one, rose by “ffrore than 10 per cent to $15.3 billion in 19901991 from $13.9 billion in 1989-1990—but the Ontario Medical Association has accused the Liberals of closing 2,000 hospital beds when they promised to open 4,000. Declared MacNaughton: “The pressure on governments to do more at the same time as people are upset about taxes is absolutely incredible—and very difficult.”
Until Sept. 6, the Liberals will continue to stress their accomplishments, showcasing their leader, shoring up their valuable incumbents and oiling their election machine. But beneath the familiar symbols, there is a sense that the traditional rules of the game are changing everywhere. A senior Liberal strategist mused last week that Canadians now believe that they cannot count on anyone anymore. “The politicians, the established orders, the structural systems like churches—there is nobody around,” he said. “They feel that all the traditional standard-bearers have let them uown. They could take it out on whoever is in power or they could take it out in a worse way by saying it does not matter.” Either way, the Ontario election has already proven that the face of Canadian politics is changing—perhaps profoundly.
MARY JANIGAN with PAUL KAIHLA and NANCY WOOD in Toronto