A Verdict On Politics

Many voters are disenchanted with the established parties

GLEN ALLEN January 6 1992

A Verdict On Politics

Many voters are disenchanted with the established parties

GLEN ALLEN January 6 1992

A Verdict On Politics



Many voters are disenchanted with the established parties

The verdict on Canadian politics is severe. The opinion of politicians is sharply critical. Altogether, the Maclean’s/Decima poll draws a portrait of an electorate deeply disenchanted with traditional politics and political institutions—and of a people eager for radical change to both. Three out of four of the votingage Canadians polled say that there is little to choose among the three mainstream political parties. And almost half of them say that they are at least somewhat likely to vote in the next federal election for one of the two alternatives that emerged as serious challengers for parliamentary seats since the 1988 election,

the Reform party and the Bloc Québécois.

Whatever the partisan color of the men and women who sit in Parliament, three out of five poll respondents agreed that between general elections voters should be able to dismiss their local MP if most of them decide that the member is not representing them properly. Only one in 10 trusts the politicians alone to make a final decision on a new constitutional package; most say that decision should be made by the people in a referendum. Said Decima Research vice-president Christopher Kelly, such poll responses underscore “a combination of lack of confidence in politics and cynicism towards politicians.” He added: “What it ultimately

indicates is that the public perceives politicians of whatever stripe to be out of touch with what average Canadians want.”

If there is little comfort for long-established parties and political institutions in many of the poll responses, opinions about the newer parties appear to form a greater threat to the political status quo—and to national unity. Only 35 per cent of Canadians questioned agreed that Canada “needs a new political party,” while the rest of the respondents said that what is needed is for the three main parties to “give Canadians a clearer view of their positions on the issues.” But when Canadians outside Quebec were asked whether they would vote in the next election for the Reform party, which excludes Quebec from its organizing drive, 46 per cent said that it was “very likely” (19 per cent) or “somewhat likely” (27 per cent) that they would cast their vote for a Reform candidate.

Parallel results emerged when Quebecers were asked separately about their attitudes to the Bloc Québécois, the pro-independence party that was founded in 1990 by former Conservative cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard and now has nine members in the Commons, including eight who defected from other parties and one, Gilles Duceppe, who won a 1990 Montreal byelection. In the poll, 50 per cent of Quebecers said that they are “somewhat likely” (26 per cent) or “very likely” (24 per cent) to vote for the Bloc in the next election.

Potential support for Reform, which is led by Calgarian Preston Manning, ranged as high as 59 per cent among respondents in Alberta, Reform’s birthplace and the home of its one MP, Deborah Grey, who won a 1989 byelection in Beaver River. It stood at a regional low of 37 per cent in neighboring Saskatchewan, where voters elected an NDP provincial government a month before the poll was conducted. When briefed on the national poll results, Richard Johnston, a University of British Columbia political scientist who studies public opinion, cautioned that they do not imply that a full 46 per cent of English-Canadians had expressed a firm intent to vote Reform. “But,” said Johnston, “if you ask the question ‘Is Reform serious?’ the answer is yes.”

Those Canadians who said that they would consider voting for Reform were asked to choose from four statements the main reason why they might vote for the party. Half of them chose the statement that “it is the only party prepared to listen to the issues of average Canadians.” About one-quarter of them agreed merely that Reform “could not do worse than the main parties.” The remainder divided between nine per cent who concluded that Reform is “the only party which takes the issues of English-Canadians seriously” and seven per cent who cited the statement that Reform “is the only party prepared to stand up to Quebec.” Of the interest shown in Reform, Decima’s Kelly said: “Half the respondents here are saying the three main parties are out of touch with what they want; that comes right through in these numbers.”

Among Quebec respondents who said that they would consider voting for the Bloc Québécois, in choosing among a similar series of statements 39 per cent agreed that the Bloc is

“the only party prepared to listen to the issues of average Quebecers.” Another 17 per cent concluded that “it could not do worse than the main parties,” and 14 per cent opted for the statement that “it is the only party prepared to stand up to English Canada.” Andrew Sancton, a University of Western Ontario political scientist with an interest in Quebec politics, said that the poll’s finding that 50 per cent of Quebecers are at least “somewhat likely” to vote for a Bloc candidate is “surprisingly high.” He added: “This would give the Conservatives a great deal to be concerned about.”

He also observed that support for the Bloc in a province swept by the Conservatives in the last federal election “might put into perspective” the Tory government’s late-November shift away from holding a Canada-wide referen-

THE SUPPORT FOR REFORM • Likelihood of voting for Reform party in next election Somewhat likely Very likely ! Not at all likely Not very likely Canada 19% British Columbia Alberta Saskatchewan Manitoba Ontario Atlantic provinces

• I am somewhat or very likely to vote for Reform because it: Canada B.C. Alta. Sask. Man. Ont. Atl. Is the only party ready to listen to the issues 50 51 49 43 60 50 48 of average Canadians Could not do worse than the main parties 24 18 22 27 21 27 20 Is the only party that takes issues of English-Canadians 16 20 16 12 14 21 seriously/is ready to stand up to Quebec

dum on the Constitution. Such a proposal had drawn strong opposition from many politicians in Quebec, including Tory MPs.

The widespread interest in new political alternatives is also demonstrated in responses to questions about the three main parties. Seventy-four per cent of respondents nationally agreed with the statement that “it doesn’t matter which of the three main political parties is in power because in the end they would all govern pretty much the same.” That response rate rises to 80 per cent in Quebec, against 72 per cent in the rest of Canada. According to scholars briefed on the poll, that result in particular reflects a concern among Canadians that all three parties share the same constitutional agenda and that none is perceived to have a solution that would relieve Canada from its current economic difficulties.

University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper noted that the experience of Ontario

with an NDP provincial government, elected in 1990, may have been influential. Said Cooper: “It looks like Bob Rae is going to have to govern like an ordinary political party [leader].” UBC’s Johnston added that the presence of new, radically different parties makes the three mainstream parties seem more the same—even when they are not. Said Johnston: “Now that Reform is out there dramatizing the difference between itself and the rest, that makes the other three look more alike.”

At the same time, there is evidence in the poll that many Canadians wish that the three major parties would reformulate and then express policy that would address real concerns on the economy, the Constitution and other matters. Nearly two-thirds of respondents— 63 per cent—agreed with the statement that “the main parties need to give a clearer view of their positions,” rather than with the proposition that the country needs a new, alternative party. Decima’s Kelly said that Canadians are “clamoring” for clear positions on economic reform from the three main parties. In the poll, unemployment and other economic concerns are by far the most frequently cited concerns of important issues facing Canada. Said Johnston: “There are a lot of people out there who find themselves feeling as though they have to vote Reform but would really prefer that one of the other parties would break out from the pack.”

At the same time, many poll respondents clearly indicated a desire to exert more control over their MPs. Sixty per cent of them agreed that a constituency’s electors should be empowered to recall an MP who “is doing a poor job representing their views and positions in Ottawa.” That is up from the 55 per cent in last year’s Maclean ’s poll who favored the power to recall an MP by a petition approved by a riding majority.

The sentiment favoring recall is stronger outside Quebec, by a margin of 63 per cent to 54 per cent of Quebec respondents. Said the University of Western Ontario’s Sancton: “Most people would say, ‘Sure, that’s a great idea.’ ” But, like others, he cautioned that Canadians may not have thought through the implications of such a change to the system. Says Johnston: “People love the idea of recall. It’s one of the most dangerous proposals imaginable, but what you’re picking up is a sort of search on for ways to punish politicians directly—and recall is an obvious thing.”

In a similar vein, Canadians are strongly in favor of using a referendum to make one of the most momentous decisions in contemporary Canadian life—the amendment of the Constitution to maintain national unity. They are divided as to how the final package should be completed. Offered a choice of three possible methods of proceeding, the smallest proportion of poll respondents, 25 per cent, agreed to a procedure similar to the Meech Lake process from 1987 to 1990 when the Prime Minister and the provincial premiers negotiated in private. But 39 per cent of respondents preferred turning the whole matter over to a large group of Canadians, excluding politicians, in a form of constituent assembly.

The middle ground was held by 34 per cent who favored a combination of individual citizens and politicians.

But the poll indicates that Canadians clearly want to put their stamp on a constitutional package. Indeed, when offered options on how the constitutional issues “should be finally settled,” 46 per cent said it should be put to a vote in a national referendum and a further 42 per cent said settlement should come through a process involving both a referendum and approval by Parliament and the provincial legislatures. Only 11 per cent said that it should be settled by Parliament and legislatures alone. In fact, even though Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark has backed away from holding a national referendum in the face of opposition from Quebec politicians, the poll shows that a plurality of 43 per cent of Quebecers are amenable to holding a national referendum alone on the constitutional issue.

For his part, the University of Calgary’s Cooper said that the willingness to make use of a national referendum—used only twice before in Canada’s history—is evidence of growing “republican” feeling in the country.

“This is new,” said Cooper.

“It has been accelerated in recent years. Canadians are not prepared to allow their political leaders alone to make important decisions on their behalf.” Said UBC’s Johnston: “People want a direct say at the end of the game.” He added that “the ultimate argument for the referendum is that it’s like the gallows—it concentrates the mind.” Referring to the divisive public argument over the Meech Lake accord—the agreement reached in private by the first ministers, which then

failed to win the unanimous ratification of the provincial legislatures—Johnston added: “You end up with another Meech Lake if you don’t make a serious commitment to real consultation by giving the people a vote.”

Even the post-Meech efforts by both federal and provincial governments to consult the public appear to have left many Canadians mistrustful of the political process. Asked to choose among a series of comments on the recent federal and provincial public hearings

SUPPORT FOR THE BLOC QUEBECOIS • Likelihood of Quebecers voting for the Bloc Québécois in the next federal election Somewhat likely Very likely ! Not at all likely Not very likely 26% 24% 25% 16% • I am somewhat or very likely to vote for the BQ because it: Is the only party ready to listen to the issues of average Quebecers Could not do worse than the main parties 17 Is the only party that takes issues of French-Canadians ^ seriously/is ready to stand up to English Canada

over national unity and constitutional issues, 51 per cent of the poll respondents opted for the statement that they are “just a waste of time and money.”

Attitudes towards the governmental consultative process may have been influenced in part by the publicity—before and during the poll-

ing—about bickering within an all-party parliamentary committee that was assigned to solicit opinions on federal constitutional proposals. But beyond that adverse influence, Johnston argued, the electorate is aware “that you cannot have a realistic consultation in the time frame available, given the size and scale of the country.” And Cooper expressed the view that “these are not really consultations in any meaningful sense—they are symbolic politics.” Still, 46 per cent of poll respondents agreed that government consultations have been “an effective way for Canadians to take part in government,” and most of those people said that “we should do more” of them. Said Decima’s Kelly: “You still see a demand for consultation—people are not abdicating that role yet.”

Despite the poll’s evidence of widespread disaffection with politicians and the political system, other responses indicated that a significant number of Canadians may hold more positive opinions. Offered a range of suggestions on who they would turn to for assistance if they had a problem in their community that affected a large number of people, a plurality of poll respondents—32 per cent—

chose “an elected politician” in their area over their neighbors (21 per cent), a local volunteer organization (16 per cent) or a local business leader (7 per cent). Another 21 per cent said that they would rely on themselves individually to settle the problem.

Confidence in politicians as problem-solvers was expressed by fewer Quebec respondents—18 per cent— than in the rest of Canada (37 per cent), and was highest of all in Saskatchewan, at 41 per cent. Expressions of self-confidence were more prevalent in Quebec, where 28 per cent of respondents said they would rely on themselves as individuals to solve a community problem. That compared with 18 per cent in the rest of Canada who responded that way, and with only 12 per cent in Saskatchewan—fewer than in any other province. At a time of widespread skepticism over the capacity of politicians to resolve an array of all but intractable problems besetting the country, the citizens themselves often seem divided and uncertain over the best way to tackle those issues.

GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa