NO LONGER WILLING TO DEFER TO POLITICAL LEADERS, VOTERS WANT REPRESENTATIVES WHO DO AS THEY ARE TOLD
TIME TO LISTEN
NO LONGER WILLING TO DEFER TO POLITICAL LEADERS, VOTERS WANT REPRESENTATIVES WHO DO AS THEY ARE TOLD
Intelligent, idealistic and still only 32, Les Campbell is the sort of person that every political party wants to attract to its fold. A onetime aide to Manitoba NDP leader Gary Doer, Campbell became Audrey McLaughlin’s chief of staff shortly after she won the federal NDP leadership in 1989. The next summer,
Campbell showed his dedication when he and several other NDP staff members visited Oka, Que., during the standoff involving provincial police and residents of the local Mohawk reserve—despite the fact that the Quebec government said it could not guarantee their safety. Last fall,
McLaughlin made him the party’s senior representative on the national Yes committee for the Oct. 26 constitutional referendum. Said Harry Near, Campbell’s Conservative counterpart on the committee: “Les is the kind of guy who made me feel good about the political process. He is a solid professional with a firstclass character.”
But even before the referendum campaign began, Campbell had become disillusioned with Parliament Hill. Day after day, he told Maclean’s, “I would go to Question Period and watch politicians go ape and behave towards each other in a manner that was not only vicious, but pointless.
Then, they would wonder why people held them all in contempt.” He added that he was startled during the referendum campaign by the depths of public animosity. “I am not the greatest fan of [Prime Minister Brian] Mulroney,” he said. “But the level of dislike towards him is ridiculous.” Less than six weeks after the referendum, Campbell abruptly resigned as McLaughlin’s chief of staff. He did so, he says, despite his “deep respect” for, and mutually warm relations with, the NDP leader, and without any clear future plans. Explained Campbell: “I left because politics in this country are no longer working. Unless we fundamentally change the rules of the game, everyone will lose.”
If you had a problem in your community that affected a large number of people, who would you turn to for assistance?
AN ELECTED POLITICIAN IN YOUR AREA
A LOCAL BUSINESS LEADER
A VOLUNTEER ORGANIZATION IN YOUR AREA
A GROUP OF NEIGHBORS YOURSELF
NO OPINION Q
Campbell’s decision reflects the frustration and sense of helplessness shared by politicians of all stripes—and the gloomy future they see before them. For many, the differences between established political parties and their constituents crystallized in the referendum, in which 54.4 per cent of voters rejected a proposal endorsed by Mulroney,
McLaughlin, Liberal leader Jean Chrétien, all 10 provincial premiers and a solid majority of the country’s business and social elite. Asked to choose their favorite political leader from a list of six in the Maclean ’s/CTV poll, 30 per cent of those surveyed insisted on “none of the above”—an option that was not even included on the questionnaire. Another 14 per cent chose U.S. president-elect Bill Clinton ahead of the Canadians on the list.
As those results illustrate, a sharply increasing number of Canadians reject the styles and solutions offered by traditional parties—and have unhappily concluded that their political leaders are an annoying, unnecessary evil. Many people, especially a new generation of disenchanted young Canadians in their early 20s, regard politicians as more of an impediment than an asset
to their everyday lives. It used to be an axiom in politics that an erosion in the popularity of one party would translate into an increase in support for its opponents. But, says Campbell, that is no longer entirely true. “People will vote for the Liberals because they are not the Conservatives, but there is no real enthusiasm there,” he said. “And we in the NDP have been marginalized. People say they like us but will not vote for us— and I do not know why.”
In fact, many voters think that the established parties are unwilling—as well as unable—to meet the needs of the electorate. Said Environment Minister Jean Charest, 34, who was first elected to the Commons in 1984: “Nothing worries or frustrates me more than the cynicism I see in young people towards politics. So many of them have no trust or belief in
anything.” That attitude is not restricted to the young. Declared Chrétien, 58: “A big problem is trust and honesty. People think we are a bunch of crooks.”
Even the term “politicians” has become for many Canadians a kind of verbal shorthand—implying that those who hold elected office, regardless of their political affiliation, have more in common with each other than with their constituents. In part, the perception springs from a belief that MPs and provincial MLAs—many of whom enjoy comparatively generous salaries, travel benefits, lavish indexed pensions and other perquisites that they have bestowed upon themselves—are insulated from the harsh economic realities that confront other Canadians. The current minimum salary for an MP is
$85,700, while the average Canadian income is $24,038.
Traditionally, voters tolerated that disparity in the belief that generous benefits were necessary to attract qualified candidates to public office. Canadians expected their elected leaders to be the kind of people they could look up to and emulate—“a leader must be a leader,” as Pierre Trudeau liked to say. But in the chilly political climate of the 1990s, many voters want those roles reversed—so that their politicians listen to them. Said Decima president Allan Gregg, who is also the Tories’ chief pollster: “In traditional politics, there was always a certain pomp and ceremony: the leader as chairman of the board. Now, people are saying, ‘I’m as good as you are.’ The deference is gone.”
In its place, Canadians want politicians whose life experiences are less removed from their own. New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, one of the few leaders with a high popularity rating in his home province, is widely praised by peers for running a frugal, cost-efficient administration; at least one federal Tory minister says admiringly that McKenna’s Liberal government “is the most efficient government in Canada.” At the same time, his populist manner is admired by many voters. McKenna attends the same Fredericton church every Sunday, shops at a local market on Saturday mornings and plays street hockey with his staff in the afternoon.
Ralph Klein, who replaced Don Getty as Alberta premier last month, also has a populist streak that appeals to voters. By the final week of the leadership race, almost every other member of Getty’s Conservative cabinet, and most federal Alberta Tory MPs, had thrown their support to Klein’s chief rival, then-Health Minister Nancy Betkowski. But Klein shrewdly portrayed that as evidence that Betkowski was too closely tied to the establishment—and was out of touch with the concerns of average Albertans. Critics, meanwhile, took aim at Klein’s fondness for late-hour drinking sessions in Calgary beer parlors, but his supporters saw that as
proof of his ability to rub shoulders with the common man.
Canada, like many other Western countries, has a long history of candidates who portray themselves as outsiders from the political establishment. Both Mulroney and Chrétien frequently evoke their backgrounds as the children of working-class parents in small Quebec towns. And NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin’s swift rise to the party leadership in 1989—two years after she won a seat in the Commons—was due in no small measure to a belief that she could attract more votes from women. Despite that, NDP support hardly budged when she became leader, and McLaughlin’s lacklustre performance has meant that she is not so much unpopular as simply unknown to many Canadians.
Similarly, Chrétien was widely praised—and became the author of a best-selling autobiography—after he left politics in 1986. But he met almost immediate criticism upon his return in 1990—and the Liberals showed little upward movement in the polls after he captured the leadership. As in McLaughlin’s case, Chrétien seemed to have more appeal when he was not considered part of the established system. Retired politicians, says a rueful Chrétien, are always more fondly regarded than active ones: “We look back, and it is always rosy.” The
Percentage who said that politicians should make decisions on their own, either through a vote in Parliament or a First Ministers’ meeting:
best evidence of that is the overwhelming support for former prime minister Trudeau’s constitutional position during the referendum debate— even in the West, where he was once reviled.
Of the three current national party leaders, Mulroney’s personal style is most at odds with voter preferences. His ponderous, overly smooth public manner and fondness for hyperbole often seem to belong to another era— and one that is not always remembered fondly. Mulroney’s antiquated slang—including such frequently employed rhetorical devices as “I’ll bet you a dollar to a doughnut” and, “Our guy just walked away with all the marbles”—seems rooted in the notion that politics is a high-octane competition in which the victor earns the right to the spoils.
That image sometimes overshadows Mulroney’s achievements—and his more generous instincts. Last month, he gave what advisers billed as a “major” foreign policy speech at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. Mulroney is well regarded internationally for his foreign policy efforts, and the speech contained
How has your faith in politicians to serve the public interest changed in the last few years?
Percentage of respondents who believe the economy is getting worse, who said their faith in politicians has decreased significantly:
Of those who believe the economy is improving:
Which of these approaches should the federal government take as a way of making important decisions?
HOLD A REFERENDUM
TAKE A PUBLIC OPINION POLL
SET UP A1-800 NUMBER SO THAT INTERESTED CANADIANS MAY EXPRESS THEIR VIEWS
HOLD A VOTE IN PARLIAMENT
CALL A FIRST MINISTERS’ CONFERENCE SO THAT THE PRIME MINISTER AND THE PREMIERS CAN DECIDE
Percentage of respondents who selected either a poll, a 1-800 number or a referendum:
UNDER $40,000 $40,000-$69,999 $70,000+
How confident are you that people with the qualities we need for the future will run for public office?
NOT VERY CONFIDENT
VERY CONFIDENT [
MACLEAN’S/ CTV POLL
Which of these has the most honesty and integrity?
DOCTOR SCIENTIST UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR BUSINESS EXECUTIVE JOURNALIST LAWYER g POLITICIAN g
Which would you be most likely to recommend to a child as a career?
JOURNALIST Q POLITICIAN g
hich of these is your favorite politician?
REST OF CANADA Q
REST OF CANADA ]
REST OF CANADA
QUEBEC 3 REST OF CANADA f
QUEBECQ REST OF CANADA I
REST OF CANADA I
NONE OF THE ABOVE
REST OF CANADA
QUEBEC 9 REST OF CANADA 3
Percentage of respondents whose favorite politician is Bill Clinton, who said that they would like their province to join the United States:
OF THOSE WHO CHOSE
BRIAN MULRONEY -»
OF THOSE WHO CHOSE AUDREY MCLAUGHLIN -1
OF THOSE WHO CHOSE JEAN CHRÉTIEN
Groups that scored higher for honesty and integrity than as a careen
UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS SCIENTISTS JOURNALISTS
Groups that scored lower for honesty and integrity than as a careen
several key announcements, including a call to broaden the mandate of UN peacekeeping forces in troubled areas such as the former Yugoslavia. But Mulroney diluted the impact of those statesmanlike declarations by peppering his address with several ill-placed ad libs. He began his speech with an old joke concerning the late Senator Robert Kennedy’s alleged promises of patronage to associates during his 1968 presidential campaign. Later, a student asked Mulroney about rumors that he is being courted as chief executive officer of American Express. Mulroney denied the report, but before doing so he remarked on the position’s million-dollar salary, smirked, and asked: “Where can I leave my phone number?”
Significantly, Mulroney’s unpopularity has not translated into substantial gains for Chrétien or McLaughlin. The two parties that have benefited most from the Tories’ woes are the Alberta-based Reform party and the prosovereigntist Bloc Québécois—both essentially protest movements and both largely composed of disenchanted former Tories. The widespread alienation, many exasperated voters say, is because politicians from all three mainstream parties spend too much time debating issues that many people consider irrelevant or—as was the case in the constitutional debate— infuriating. Over the past two years, the Tories’ private polls showed that a majority of respondents did not want their governments focusing on constitutional reform.
In the wake of the referendum, key figures in all parties acknowledge the need to make a new effort to decipher a public mood they no longer understand. But for now, said Campbell: “We are all desperately flailing around, looking for answers to how to make people believe in politics again.”
Another consideration is that politicians are now expected to represent not only the regions that elected them—but also the diverse elements of a country whose residents increasingly define themselves along sexual, ethnic, linguistic, age and other lines. Such divisions were most apparent during the referendum campaign, when the list of demands by different special-interest groups was long and complex. But those discordant voices raise another discomfiting possibility: in their uncertainty and inability to agree on the country’s priorities, politicians and their constituents may have more in common than either side cares to admit.
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