Future Imperfect

Canadians are ready for fundamental changes in society

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 30 1996

Future Imperfect

Canadians are ready for fundamental changes in society

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 30 1996

Future Imperfect

Canadians are ready for fundamental changes in society



It is a remarkable image from a pivotal time in Canadian politics. The black-and-white photograph, taken 1967 at a swearing-in ceremony of new federal cabinet min shows four men smiling contentedly at the

camera: Lester Pearson, Pierre Tru 1eau, John Turner and a particularly young-looking Jean Chrétien. At the time, Pearson was prime minis~ ter, while each of the three wouldá later have their turn in that roleand each, in their own way, would' epitomize distinct eras in Canada's history. Pearson had already put Canada on the top rung of inter national diplomacy, with his 1957

Nobel Prize for peacekeeping. Trudeau, in 15 years as prime minister, would preside over a huge expansion in the role and size of government, while Turner, who lasted only three months in office, took on the job at a time when anti-government sentiments and concern about overspending were just starting to sweep the Western world.

And finally there is Chrétien, the first Liberal of the modern era to lead at a time when the size of government is actually shrinking. That, among other things, helps to explain his cautious mood as he

sat down with Maclean’s in mid-December to discuss his view of Canada—and how Canadians see his government’s place in it (page 72). “They know,” said Chrétien, “that there is nobody who will have a magic wand, and solve all the problems Oust by] being there.”

That is an understatement, to go by the responses to the 13th annual Maclean’s yearend sampling of the nation’s mood. Despite the ruling Liberals’ continued high standing in the polls, Canadians have become “borderline nihilists” when it comes to their view of governments’ ability to positively affect society, says pollster Allan Gregg. “People increasingly have decided that governments are simply not an important force in their everyday lives,” says Gregg, chairman of Toronto-based The Strategic Counsel Inc.

Those low expectations are not confined to government. With the a new millennium approaching, not to mention a federal election expected in the coming year, Canadians are approaching their future with bleakly pragmatic expectations (page 22). In a continuing but deepening trend, overwhelming majorities expect the society of tomorrow to be a poorer, more violent place, where full-time work will be harder to come by and people, by necessity, will be more self-sufficient. As for promises by Chrétien and other political leaders that universal health care and social programs such as unemployment insurance and old-age pensions will be maintained, poll respondents are either ignoring those assertions, or simply do not believe them.

Moreover, most respondents now expect to have to keep working after the age of 65 to support themselves, and anticipate that those with the money will be able to buy a higher education at private universities. And while they bridle at visions of a society where work is more scarce, and government pensions and the social support system have become distant memories, they do show a grudging acceptance of a two-tier health-care system and private universities. “There is a recognition that these are tough times requiring tough action,” says Gregg. “That, in turn, breeds a great impatience when political leaders try to get by with happy talk in lieu of those tough solutions.” Perhaps the most telling measure of the present mood is the paradoxically huge gap that exists between the popularity of the ruling Liberals and the low expectations people have of governments being able to solve their problems. For more than three years since their election in September, 1993, the Liberals have hovered around 50-per-cent support in almost every major poll. The Prime Minister’s own approval ratings have often topped his party’s, making him the most popular national leader since polling began more than half a century ago. Amid widespread public disillusionment with politics and the people who practise it, the Prime Minister would appear to be a notable exception. But this year’s Maclean’s poll, conducted in conjunction with CBC TV’s The National, peers behind those numbers and un-

JOBS, JOBS, JOBS Q: What is the most important issue facing Canada? CANADA B.C. Prairies Ontario Quebec Atlantic Unemployment 31% 19% 18% 31% 42% 37% Deficit/ government spending National unity Economy (general) Health care Other social services Taxes Crime/violence/justice Education Environment Government Morality Native issues Agricultural issues Immigration/ multiculturalism Women’s issues Don’t know

A/ of men, but 24% of women, expressed increased /¥ optimism about the future.

A/ think government deficits will be *'¡k lower entering the next century. U 37% still think they will be higher.

A/ say Canada should /A rema'n heavily involved in /¥ peacekeeping operations.

WHERE THE FIRM SUPPORT LIES Respondents who think particular parties offer solutions:

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberals: 10%

British Columbia 8 Alberta 10 Saskatchewan 7 Manitoba 13 Ontario 10 Quebec 9 New Brunswick 10 Prince Edward Island 12 Nova Scotia 10 Newfoundland 10

Preston Manning’s Reform party: 4%

British Columbia 9 Alberta 11 Saskatchewan 6 Manitoba 2 Ontario 3 Quebec 2 New Brunswick 2 Prince Edward Island 3 Nova Scotia 1 Newfoundland 1

Jean Charest’s Conservatives: 3%

British Columbia 4 Alberta 3 Saskatchewan 1 Manitoba 3 Ontario 5 Quebec 2 New Brunswick 4 Prince Edward Island 4 Nova Scotia 3 Newfoundland 2

Alexa McDonough’s New Democratic Party: 2%

British Columbia 4 Alberta 1 Saskatchewan 1 Manitoba 3 Ontario 3 Quebec -New Brunswick 2 Prince Edward Island 3 Nova Scotia 4 Newfoundland 2

Michel Gauthier’s Bloc Québécois: 1% British Columbia 2

British Columbia Alberta -Saskatchewan 1 Manitoba -Ontario -Quebec 3 New Brunswick -Prince Edward Island -Nova Scotia 1 Newfoundland 1

Q: Which federal party has concrete solutions to the nation’s major challenges? None: 76% Liberals: 10% Reform: 4% Conservatives: 3% NDP: 2% Bloc Québécois: 1 % Don’t know: 8%

covers an overwhelming lack of confidence in all of the federal parties. Asked which of those parties have concrete solutions to the nation’s major problems, a remarkable 76 per cent of respondents say “None.” Just 10 per cent cite the Liberals, and no other party gets the approval of more than four per cent. On die day he met with Maclean’s, Chrétien needed no reminder of the public’s disappointment with politicians. Then fully immersed

in controversy over his government’s widely perceived flip-flop on reforming the GST, it would be five more days before he offered a grudging apology for not keeping his vows in

the 1993 campaign to “abolish” and “kill” the tax. That furor over a promise also reminded Canadians of another sensitive issue on the government agenda: job creation. Despite campaign vows to make that a priority, the unemployment rate hovers at about 10 per cent, with studies indicating that many of the jobs that have been created are part-time, low-paying positions that offer little security. As it hap-

pens, unemployment is the national issue that most concerns poll respondents, cited first by 31 per cent.

Layoffs dominate the news. University graduates swell the ranks of the unemployed. Young panhandlers proliferate on the sidewalks while others, weilding window-washing squeegees, collect change from unsuspecting drivers. Ultimately, the job issue “has the potential to cause the Liberals far more long-term damage than the fuss

over the GST,” says Gregg. “One is seen as a verbal misstep, while the other is viewed as an inability to make policy on an issue that is fundamental to peoples’ everyday lives.”

Compounding the poll respondents’ anxiety is their fear that the consequences of not having a job will become graver than ever. Substantial majorities expect that by 2005 most people will be unable to afford to retire at 65 (79 per cent), many people will never find full-time work (80 per cent), and there will be no government assistance for those who lose their jobs (64 per cent). As is often the case,

of Quebecers, compared with 72% across Canada, expect the United Nations to continue to rank Canada as one of the best places to live.

(including 59% in Quebec) say the threat of Quebec separation has affected Canada’s economy outside that province.

pessimism runs highest among those most likely to be directly affected. For example, the belief that welfare and unemployment insurance will no longer exist runs highest among those aged 18 to 24 (72 per cent) and those now earning less than $20,000 annually (70 per cent).

No other issue approaches unemployment in the ranking of the top national concerns. In second place was the deficit and high level of government spending, cited by 15 per cent (page 21). And little more than a year after the razorthin No side win of 50.4 per cent to 49.6 per cent in the Quebec referendum that nearly plunged the nation into constitutional crisis, only nine per cent cited national unity as the dominant concern. (Even in Quebec, that number was just 11 per cent, with 42 per cent there citing unemployment.)

While Canadians have hardly closed the book on the national unity issue—in fact, 42 per cent consider it likely that Quebec will become a separate country by the year 2005—many seem to have grown accustomed to that prospect. Asked how they feel about a range of possible scenarios for the early years of the new millen-

nium, fully 37 per cent of Canadians (ranging from 28 per cent in Nova Scotia to 55 per cent in Quebec) say they could accept seeing Quebec become a separate country. That surprisingly large acceptance of the country fracturing could bode poorly for any attempt at constitutional reconciliation. “People are tired of the issue, unwilling to discuss it further,” says Gregg. “They are basically saying it may be time for both sides to move on to other things.”

While the Liberal government is unlikely to take encouragement from many of the poll findings, there is also little cheer for the opposition. The majority belief that no party offers concrete solutions to the nation’s problems “reflects the great lack of interest out there towards politics as practised in Ottawa today,” says Gregg. “There is no patience with partisanship, and many people think the real opposition to government comes from other outlets like volunteer organizations, lobby groups and just about anyone other than those on the opposition benches.”

In 1993, the Reform party rose from near obscurity to 52 seats in the House of Commons, based in large part on a fiscally conservative, antipolitical establishment program. Three years later, Reformers have watched with a mixture of satisfaction and frustration as the Liberal government dipped into their program and took its own initiatives on deficit reduction, crime prevention, immigration and a reduced role for government.

At the same time, some Reform MPs freely acknowledge that they have been unable to get rid of aspects of everyday parliamentary life that they most dislike. They arrived in Ottawa determined to change the way many things

worked, vowing, among other things, to emphasize good behavior in the House of Commons and refrain from the heckling and blatant partisanship that traditionally characterize sessions. But after facing accusations from their political opponents and the media of being unfocused and ineffective, the Reform caucus gradually changed its approach. Now, many Reform MPs concede, they behave just like members of other parties. And the poll respondents give them no more credibility. Just four per cent— mostly in British Columbia and Alberta—believe that Reform offers solutions to their problems.

Still, Reform can take some solace from the evidence that Canadians see no more solutions coming from the other parties. Three years into his efforts to rebuild an electoral base for the devastated Conservatives, party leader Jean Charest has convinced just three per cent of poll respondents that he can provide the solutions. The New Democrats, under the leadership of Nova Scotian Alexa McDonough since 1995, enjoy the

confidence of just two per cent. And the Bloc Québécois, the Official Opposition whose leader, Michel Gauthier, has decided to step down in March because he has not been effective, is seen by just one per cent nationally—and only three per cent in Quebec—as a party with solutions.

All of which reflects a revolutionary change in Canadians’ voting intentions in recent years, notes Gregg. Not only have typical voters become much less likely to be faithful to one party, but their impatience also embraces the opposition along with the government. The cynicism of voters “is pretty all-encompassing,” says Gregg. “It’s not enough for an opposition politician to just go name-calling at the government: you have to offer very concrete, attractive alternatives, and you have to make clear you are committed to them. At this point, none of the opposition parties have succeeded in doing that.”

But none of that means Canadians are content to have no one putting their government’s feet to the fire: 60 per cent of respondents say it would worry them if the Liberals returned with a landslide and no effective opposition in the next election. It is an attitude with a potential for creating a backlash against the governing party if it appears to be cruising too easily through the next campaign.

But despite Chrétien’s credibility controversy, the Liberals seem to be doing more than their opponents to align themselves with voter interests. The next election, says an adviser to Chrétien, will “likely be fought on one over-

Liberals feel vulnerable to attack from the left

CUTBACKS: RESISTANCE BUILDS ... Q: Has Ottawa gone far enough, or too far, in its efforts to reduce the deficit? • Not far enough • About right

... AND BUILDS Q: Which provincial governments have gone too far in efforts to reduce the deficit?

A / say Ottawa has still not gone far enough /A to reduce the deficit; only 16% say it has gone too far.

A/ say it will be a problem if the Liberals are /A re'electecl without an effective opposition to /U challenge its policies.

riding theme: we are the one major party that believes in the ability of government to do good things.” That is an optimistic way of reflecting the concern of Liberal strategists that they now feel most vulnerable to attack from the left. With that in mind, the Liberals have been backing away from the small-c conservative, budget-cutting agenda that characterized their first three years in office, opting instead to stress more activist themes.

By swinging the party back towards the left, Liberals plan to try to appeal to their more traditional constituency, and emphasize the distinction between themselves and Reform—which promotes tax cuts and even smaller government— and to a lesser extent the Conservatives, who are also championing tax cuts rather than new government programs. In his interview with Maclean’s, Chrétien repeatedly stressed job creation as “the main problem” and acknowledged that, on that issue, his government is “struggling.” In a mid-December speech in Ottawa, Finance Minister Paul Martin said that governments should not allow themselves to be “bullied” by financial markets. Instead, he said, Canadians need a government that will help them adjust to a changing world by investing in such areas as research and development, export promotion, education and training. Both Chrétien and Martin have also signalled plans to announce an assault on child poverty. In fact, said Martin, that issue and the unemployment problem are related. A large cause of unemployment, he said, “is that for the past 20 years, we’ve ignored the plight of poor kids, and now we’ve got a generation of adults who were brought up under those circumstances.” Given the Canadian public’s deep underlying cynicism towards politicians, there is an obvious danger that the Liberals’ apparent rediscovery of their more left-leaning roots will arouse suspicion among voters. But Gregg, a former senior Tory strategist, sees “terrific growth potential” for the Liberals if they can present their case in a compelling way. The reason, he says, “is that Canadians want some discussion and proposals relating to the future of work, and they’re going to support the party that gives that to them.”

Meanwhile, almost three-quarters of the poll respondents—72 per cent—say they expect the United Nations to continue giving Canada high ratings as a place to live in the next decade. Despite their profound reservations about their political leadership and their changing society, Canadians still expect someone, somewhere, to do the right thing. □

Life after the budget cuts

Is Canada’s collective debt problem really that serious and, if so, are the country’s political leaders doing enough to deal with it? The poll responses contain a clear, if unsurprising, message to leaders at both the federal and provincial levels: as much as Canadians like the idea of reduced government spending, they shrink from the reality of what those cuts mean. On one hand, respondents to the Maclean's/CBC News year-end poll think the federal government should do more to address its budget shortfall. On the other, many think that provincial governments—most of which now expect to have balanced budgets by the turn of the century—have gone too far.

A year ago, 22 per cent of respondents in the 12th annual poll cited the combined issue of government spending and the deficit as the country’s biggest problem. That ranked it as the second most important issue—after unemployment, cited by 27 per cent. This year, the total concerned about government spending drops to 15 per cent, still in second place with unemployment again topping the list, at 31 per cent. The good news for the federal Liberals is that the number who think the government has gone “about the right distance” in budgetcutting has climbed from last year, to 26 per cent from 20 per cent. But even after three consecutive years of federal spending cuts, 51 per cent of respondents still say the government has not done enough to reduce the deficit.

On a provincial level, respondents are clearly not happy with governments that are still deeply involved in deficitreduction efforts. Residents of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario gave their government’s cost-cutting program disapproval rates of 53 per cent, 49 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively. The simple message, says pollster Allan Gregg, is that “the more you see of the actual effect of cuts, the less people like them.”

The federal Liberals have already made it clear that, in what is likely to be an election year, they are expecting Finance Minister Paul Martin to deliver a goodnews budget in February, more focused on creating new programs than scrapping existing ones. Still, deficit-reduction plans remain on track: the Liberals, after inheriting an annual deficit of $42 billion from the Conservatives when they came to power in late 1993, expect that to shrink to $17 billion by next year. Their hold on the public’s confidence in deficit matters may be precarious, however. Those projections are based in part on cumulative cuts announced in previous budgets but only coming into effect in the new year and beyond. Only then will the public see what effect they have in such areas as unemployment insurance, transfer payments to provinces, defence and international aid.

The Liberals can only watch in envy as, in Alberta, Premier Ralph Klein enjoys the fruits of a mission accomplished. A year ago, 48 per cent of Albertans thought their government had gone too far in tackling its deficit—more than in any other province. This year, with a budget surplus forecast and the purse strings loosened, Alberta is the only province to see its dissatisfaction number drop, to 41 per cent. A coincidence that Klein’s voter-satisfaction numbers are higher than any other First Ministers’? Hardly.


36 say their financial situation worsened in the past 10 years, unchanged from last year. 30% say their financial situation got better, down from 34% last year.

Most likely to say their financial situation worsened: those earning less than $20,000 a year (50%) and those aged 45 to 54 ( 52%).