Canada

Still not buying

Voters are either unmoved or turned off by the leaders

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 26 1997
Canada

Still not buying

Voters are either unmoved or turned off by the leaders

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 26 1997

Still not buying

Voters are either unmoved or turned off by the leaders

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

Pity the poor politicians. Even after last week’s television debates, when each of the party leaders barked long and loud in an attempt to wake up what has so far been a sleepy electorate, members of the public still seem unmoved by any of them. That, at least, is the impression left by the 10 undecided voters in each of five ridings who make up the Maclean’s election panel. In interview after interview, panelists expressed uncertainty and resignation. More than a few said they will only vote out of a sense of obligation—for them, the candidates evoke only exasperation, sometimes disgust. Even those who are beginning to lean towards the Liberals said they like the party more than its leader: most in that group were swayed by the government’s performance on lowering the deficit.

The Tories’ Jean Charest and NDP Leader Alexa McDonough continue to elicit a modicum of praise from some panelists. Charest, in particular, ran a close second to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien when it came to choosing the leader best qualified to deal with the national unity question. But panelists also qualified their remarks by noting that they do not necessarily agree with the platforms that the Tories and NDP espouse; a surprising number of voters,

while attracted by the Conservative promise of tax cuts and the NDP’s proposals for massive program spending, ultimately rejected both of those options. Instead, they agreed with the Liberal contention that it is better to eliminate the deficit first, then loosen the purse strings. Still, several foresee at least modest comebacks for the Tories and the NDP, with a significant number predicting a strong resurgence for the Conservatives. But most are already convinced that they face four more years of the same: a fractured, squabbling Parliament dominated by Chrétien’s liberals.

HALIFAX In this closely watched contest between NDP Leader Alexa McDonough and Liberal incumbent Mary Clancy, many panelists seem to be favoring McDonough—although not with great enthusiasm. ‘Typically, the parties are all fairly pathetic,” says Walter Forsyth, 34, co-owner of a gelato parlor, “so it’s a matter of choosing the lesser of the impressively pathetic parties.” But while Forsyth is leaning to the NDP, he believes that Charest scored some critical points in last week’s debates and that the Conservatives may start pulling ahead.

Eric Ross, 34, a magazine business manager, is drawn to Charest’s promises of a tax cut, although he questions whether the

Tories would actually implement such a policy. “I think it’s time for tax relief, working alongside a program to pay off the debt,” he says. Charest would also be the best leader to resolve the unity question, he adds. But Jen Reynolds, 24, executive director of the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group, says Chrétien is still the best bet when it comes to saving the federation. “Charest’s attitude seems too slick to me,” she says, “and I don’t consider Preston Manning able at all to deal with national unity.”

Commentator Stephen Kimber, dean of journalism at King’s College, believes that McDonough could indeed win Halifax, but that the Tories are more likely to pick up seats from the Liberals in other Atlantic ridings. “Charest, by his performance in the debate, could bring some traditional Tories back into the fold,” Kimber says. “People, still feeling that residual frustration about Brian Mulroney, have been unsure where to go with their opposition vote. Charest may have helped to wipe out some of that bad feeling.”

BROSSARD In this suburban Montreal-area riding, there appears to be little consensus on which party has offered the best platform. Several panelists said none of the parties has impressed them and none of the leaders has the answers on the unity question. The rest were divided between the Grits and the Tories. Real estate broker Ernest Leung, 42, is most impressed by the liberals. While he acknowledges that the Conservative promise of lower taxes “sounds very good,” he prefers that the government balance the books first Following last week’s debates, he seems wary of Charest “I find he talks very well,” he says, “but he doesn’t have too much to offer.” Louise Hamois, 46, a nurse, has an unusual answer to the question

of which platform is the most appealing: unite the leaders. ‘Take Chrétien and McDonough— don’t you think it would make a great pair?” she says. “But we can only choose one, right?” On unity, Harnois says the choice is clearly Chrétien or Charest and she leans toward Chrétien. “I listened to him and he knows what he is talking about,” she says.

National affairs journalist Ronald Lebel, a Maclean’s panel expert, notes that “Quebecers have been split down the middle on the question of Quebec’s future, and this division persists.” There has been a move away from the Bloc, compared with the 1993 election, he says. “A lot of people voted for [former Bloc leader] Lucien Bouchard because he was a charismatic leader and he tapped into a lot of resentment. But [current leader] Gilles Duceppe is running a terrible campaign.”

The result, Lebel says, may be that many Bloc supporters will stay home, indirectly benefiting the Liberals.

ST. PAUL’S Panelists in this middle-class, central Toronto swing riding still seem split over which party has offered the best platform. Marc Sharrett, 24, an economic policy analyst, is drawn to the Tories’ promises of a tax cut, as well as greater investment in retraining and education. He believes it would be possible to both cut taxes and reduce the national debt—once the deficit has been eliminated. Although he feels none of the leaders are really qualified to deal with unity, Charest is the best of the lot, he says, although “maybe he is too willing to give into the nationalist agenda.” Joanne Johnston, 28, an assistant director with Japan’s trade organization in Toronto, says she is “still working on negatives.” She is leaning Liberal, she says—she would prefer to pay down the debt quickly, rather than take a tax break now. “By the time [a tax cut] gets down to me, I won’t see it,” she says. But she supports Charest when it comes to unity. “He performed far better than Chrétien in the debate,” she says. She also sees the Tories pulling ahead nationally.

For commentator Robert Bothwell, professor of history at the University of Toronto, the wonder is that so few voters have

faulted Chrétien on his lacklustre performance during the debate. “Canadians are not yet ready to see Chrétien go down,” he suggests. Charest, on the other hand, showed himself to be quick on his feet. On national unity, however, Bothwell credits Chrétien with a more consistent platform than Charest. “It’s a question of zero selling something, and something selling zero,” he says. At the end of the day, “I get the feeling that people are uneasy—they don’t like what they are seeing—but it’s not enough to change the outcome.”

CALGARY WEST Again, Maclean’s panelists in this hotly contested residential riding seem to lack consensus, except for an apparent lack of interest in Reform—which won by a large margin in the last election—and a perception that the Conservatives are gaining momentum. Small-business owner Lee Magis, who is in her 20s, has not been impressed by any of the parties. “They’re all talking about the same thing,” she says. She is especially frustrated when it comes to national unity. “I would say the best leader would be a new leader,” she says. Like many panelists, university English student Tan Shah, 29, believes that paying down the debt is important, but that it should be done without increasing taxes. “They should take lessons from Ralph Klein and employ strategic cuts,” he says, “only not so harshly.” Chrétien has his support on national unity, although he believes the Tories may be doing better as a result of the debate.

Commentator Keith Archer, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, notes that certain issues, like unity and the deficit, are difficult for voters since the opposition parties have trouble creating platforms that are easily distinguishable from that of the government. “No one is opposed to reducing the deficit,” Archer notes, “it’s a matter of how they will do it. And those can be fine distinctions.” When such issues are at stake, he adds, much can turn on the public’s general view of the leaders, or their parties.

PORT MOODY/COQUITLAM Reform and the NDP continue to duke it out in this Vancouver-area riding that also has many Liberal supporters. Supreet Ghuman, 22, a university sciences student, says the Liberals’ record on finances has attracted her support. Their platform takes the long view, she says, and is more detailed. Still, she believes Charest would do the best job of dealing with the unity issue. “He seems to be more of a mediator,” she says. “Manning wants equality for everyone, and this won’t work.” But Lawrence Watson, 49, a technician for B.C. Tel, says that Reform represents a real alternative. “Other parties are offering same old, same old,” he says. And he adds that Manning is the best person to deal with the unity issue, “simply because he refuses to consider any kind of distinct society for Quebec.”

Commentator Michael Howlett, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, says the television debates are the only possible reason for the Tories to have “anything going” in British Columbia. Local press reports clearly pegged Charest as the winner, he notes, although that success is not likely to translate into many votes. “It’s been a funny election out here,” he says. “People have been complaining that they are not getting enough information. They are calling it the non-election.” □

The Maclean’s panel responses are compiled with the participation of experts and students at five universities. In Halifax, Stephen Kimber, dean of journalism at King’s College, is assisted by Erin Pamela Greeno and Jaime Kathleen Little. Lindsay Crysler, director of journalism at Concordia University, and national affairs journalist Ron Lebel are supervising Jean-François Bégin and David Gambrill in Montreal. University of Toronto history professor Robert Bothwell is assisted by Kathleen Rasmussen and Ann Flanagan. At the University of Calgary, political science professor Keith Archer is overseeing the work of Carey Anne Hill and Mebs Kanji. At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., Michael Howlett, professor of political science, and John Richards, professor of business, are assisted by Russell LaPointe and Colleen Wetherall.