COVER

No Holds Barred

MARY JANIGAN June 2 1997
COVER

No Holds Barred

MARY JANIGAN June 2 1997

No Holds Barred

COVER

BUREAU REPORT: Ontario

MARY JANIGAN

Although she has decidedly firm views on the issues, Ruth Litowski remains, in the dry parlance of pollsters, officially undecided. So when Burlington Liberal MP Paddy Torsney appeared at her doorstep last week, Litowski confronted her with a litany of concerns. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did not keep his promise to rescind the Goods and Services Tax. Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps diverted millions of taxpayer dollars into an ill-advised giveaway of Canadian flags. “And Canadians are fed up with Quebec crying all the time,” Litowski said. “No more money—they get enough.” Torsney insisted that Chrétien has been firm with Quebec—and that the Prime Minister’s low-key attempt to settle one issue at a time is working. But Litowski was not convinced. As Torsney raced to the next door, the retired occupational health nurse confided that she voted Liberal in 1993. This time, she admires Reform Leader Preston Manning, although his team does not impress her. She is leaning towards Conservative candidate Mike Kuegle—but the thought of former prime minister Brian Mulroney still infuriates her. In the end, she may decide on the Liberals again. “I just want Quebec to be settled,” she added.

In the waning weeks of the campaign, undecided voters like Litowski are raising the hopes of Torsney’s opponents in this prosperous city tucked between Toronto and Hamilton. In 1993, the

once staunchly Tory riding slipped to the Liberals—because the Conservatives and Reform split the bulk of the opposition vote (NDP candidate Jim Hough, who is running again, took less than three per cent). This time, Reform candidate Terry Lamping is talking about jobs, crime and national unity. “I tell voters that if you like the way things have been going, vote for the Liberals or the Tories,” he says. “But if you want improvements, consider me.” Tory candidate Kuegle counters that Reform is a regional party incapable of functioning with a strong cross-Canada voice. “Voters are very much open to the fact that we need balance and a national alternative,” he asserts. “They are coming back to us.”

Such ferocious local contests reflect the fact that Ontario, with 103 of the 301 seats in the next Parliament, is now the site of an allout struggle among Reform, the Tories and the Liberals. So far, despite frequent visits and fervent promises by Manning and Tory Leader Jean Charest, most polls indicate that the Liberals are comfortably ahead of their rivals with about 50 per cent of decided voters. That means that, barring an upset, the Liberals will likely retain many of their 96 seats. Since their support is slipping in other regions, such loyalty could spell the difference between a majority and minority government.

With so much at stake, Liberal organizers in Ontario are counting

their blessings—and keeping their fingers crossed. Their organization is strong—and they can rely on a solid traditional base of support. Their leader remains popular. Most of their candidates are familiar incumbents who, as a result, enjoy an automatic advantage over their opponents. They are viewed as a national party. The more conservative vote remains split between Reform and the Tories. Party strategists add that many voters are repelled by Charest’s promised tax cuts because they fear further social service cutbacks. And the strategists maintain that Manning has offended others with his get-tough approach to Quebec. “Our campaign may not have inspired people, but it hasn’t pissed them off,” says national campaign co-chairman David Smith. “For incumbents to lose, the public usually needs to be mad at them.”

But as the campaign rolled into its final week, small cracks were appearing in that cautious Liberal facade.

Strategists for all parties privately conceded that Reform has easily bettered the Tories in key rural regions, particularly along the shores of Lake Simcoe. Meanwhile, the Tories are pulling well ahead of Reform in suburban ridings, especially those in the belt that rings Metropolitan Toronto. Impressed by Charest’s strong performance in the leaders’ debates, voters are now taking a hard look at his policies. In effect, Ontario voters opposed to the Liberals are starting to clump strategically behind whatever candidate has the best chance of defeating them. The New Democrats, meanwhile, sidelined in most of the province, are throwing their resources behind a handful of well-known candidates. Says Ontario Tory campaign co-chairwoman Jan Dymond: “This final week is critical in terms of trying to move the soft Liberal vote and getting some of the undecideds.”

Despite such trends, the Liberals will be difficult to dislodge. Liberal strategists insist that the conservative vote remains sufficiently split to thwart the prospect of major upsets. And they believe that the Liberals’ reputation for solid economic management will persuade most voters to stick with them—even if they nurture grudges and complaints. An Environics Research Group Ltd. poll taken in mid-May indicated that Chrétien beat his rivals when voters were asked who had the best approach to job creation, health care and national unity. To shore up those opinions, the Liberals are now issuing disparaging news releases that implicitly contrast Chrétien’s team, especially Finance Minister Paul Martin, with Charest’s team. Such appeals may work. As Burlington landscape designer Carl Umetsu notes: “Paul Martin has done a good job. The situation that he inherited was a bad one.”

Unless Charest’s growing personal popularity tugs up his party in the final week, the Liberals believe that their Ontario losses may be limited to, at most, 12 ridings. There is a sprinkling of seats around Toronto such as Oakville, Etobicoke/Lakeshore and Bramalea/Gore/Malton where the candidate and the local organization may not be strong enough to fend off determined attacks. As well, they are not likely to regain Markham, where voters are still angry at the Liberals for allowing nowIndependent MP Jag Bhaduria,

The Liberals, Tories and Reform duke it out in Ontario

who misrepresented his credentials, to run as a Liberal in 1993. “I gotta believe we can still hit something over 90,” says a senior Ontario Liberal. “I just can’t find that many scenarios that are going to work against us.”

To crack Ontario’s affinity for the Liberals, the Tories are highlighting leadership. At every Ontario stop last week, Charest depicted himself as a leader with new ideas for the economy—and the ability to keep the country together. If that message catches fire, it could put the Tories over the top in the suburban belt around Metro Toronto and in ridings that spill eastward and westward along Lake Ontario—including Burlington. If lawn signs are any indication, Kuegle has pulled ahead of his Reform rival—and he is nosing close to Liberal Torsney. “Reform is almost anti-Quebec oriented,” Kuegle argues, “and people want a leader who can reach out to Quebec.”

But Reform has touched a nerve in Ontario. As Liberal Torsney campaigned last week in Burlington, she found two households that welcomed her signs—and a third where the resident would only support a party “with a non-Quebec leader.” Reform campaign director Richard Anderson says flatly that the hot issues in Ontario are unity and tax relief. “But unity is the big seething ground of this campaign right now,” he warns. “The country is getting ready to send a strong signal that the management of the unity issue has been incompetent. Charest and Chrétien have been letting separatists control the agenda.” That message has had especially strong appeal in the ridings that border Lake Simcoe, where Reform could capture up to four seats, including Simcoe/Grey and Simcoe North. If its popularity spreads, Reform could win a belt of largely rural ridings that arch from Peterborough in the east into the Niagara Peninsula. Although they have strong support in eastern Ontario, they are not likely to win seats—because they will split the vote with the Tories in that area.

Unless the Liberals’ massive lead diminishes, the NDP has small chance of major success. So the party has thrown most of its resources behind a handful of high-profile, popular candidates who have strong connections with their community. Their best hopes lie with former provincial MPP Elie Martel in the northern riding of Nickel Belt, Phyllis Dietrich in Sault Ste. Marie, Olivia Chow in

Toronto’s Trinity/Spadina and Joe Comartin in Windsor/St. Clair. Says NDP campaign director David Woodbury: “Because the vote seems to be holding with the Liberals, the individual strength of our candidate is so important.”

In the end, unless Charest’s personal popularity gathers more votes or Reform’s national unity message strikes a broader chord, many Ontario Liberal MPs will likely keep their seats. But party strategists are uneasily aware that they may win largely because they have not annoyed too many voters. And that would constitute, at best, a lukewarm endorsement. “We can’t get away with this sort of weak campaign a third time,” a senior Liberal adviser told Maclean’s. “Even Ontario wouldn’t stick around for that.” So far, the province’s staying power has been the enduring liberal miracle of this lacklustre election. □

RIDINGS TO WATCH

YORK SOUTH/WESTON: Former Toronto Liberal MP John Nunziata, who was expelled from the party, is fighting for his political life as an Independent. Liberal Judy Sgro, appointed as a candidate by the Prime Minister, is challenging Nunziata.

MARKHAM: Liberal Gobinder Randhawa will have to be very lucky to win this Toronto-area riding against Tory Jim Jones or even Reformer John Paloc. The voters remain angry at the Liberals for allowing now-independent MP Jag Bhaduria, who misrepresented his credentials, to run in 1993.

NICKEL BELT: Liberal MP Raymond Bonin, elected in 1993, will be hard-pressed to keep this Northern Ontario riding. He is up against high-profile NDP candidate Elie Martel, a veteran MPP.

DUFFERIN/PEEL/WELLINGTON/GREY: This traditionally Tory riding went to Liberal Murray Calder in 1993. This time, Reform has high hopes that candidate Dave Davies, a local school board trustee, will eclipse Calder and Tory Eleanor Taylor.

PARRY SOUND/MUSKOKA: The Tories’ star candidate, former Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, is facing a tough fight against Reform’s Peter Spadzinski and Liberal MP Andy Mitchell.

OAKVILLE: This prosperous Lake Ontario city is near the top of the Tories’ wish list. They are pitting regional councillor Stephen Sparling against Liberal MP Bonnie Brown.