COVER

The New Realism

Most voters say unemployment is beyond Ottawa's control

PATRICIA CHISHOLM June 2 1997
COVER

The New Realism

Most voters say unemployment is beyond Ottawa's control

PATRICIA CHISHOLM June 2 1997

The New Realism

COVER

The Maclean's Election Panel

Most voters say unemployment is beyond Ottawa's control

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

Predicting the passions of voters is clearly an inexact science. Before the election call, many political observers were certain that the campaign would be about jobs and the economy. But Maclean’s weekly survey of 10 undecided voters in each of five ridings has found that unemployment—a national obsession in the early 1990s—appears to have subsided into a regional issue. In Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, a surprising number of panelists said that governments have limited power to create jobs— too many other forces are at work, they concluded, such as global economic shifts. But in Montreal and especially Halifax, concerns about work still run high. In those cities, many panelists worried about the poor prospects for youth and the local effects of a persistently high unemployment rate. Equally surprising, national unity appears to be one of the very few issues that generates heat in all regions. Several panelists volunteered their views on this topic, and suggested that the parties’ positions could influence their final decisions. While many remain undecided, even as late as last week, almost all are predicting another Liberal majority, although with reduced numbers. The hot question, they say, is who will form the Opposition. Many are rooting for Jean Charest’s Tories, but they are reluctant to write off Preston Manning’s Reformers, especially in the West. Except in Quebec, almost no one expects that the Bloc Québécois will retain its position as the official Opposition.

HALIFAX Even though it is a relatively prosperous urban riding, most panelists were unequivocal about unemployment: it remains an issue of the utmost im

portance that must be addressed by the government.

That may be why several have decided to cast their vote for NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, whose party has the most aggressive job-creation platform. Employment counsellor Kim Vance, 28, says she knows too many young adults suffering from depression because they are out of work. ‘The Liberals made a lot of promises about jobs and I haven’t seen that come true,” she says. “Maybe the NDP won’t do a better job, but I don’t think they’ll do any worse—and their heart is in the right place.” Shane MacKinnon, a program director at a local radio station, remains undecided, but he is certain about which issue is of overriding importance—also jobs. “It should be a top priority on each candidate’s list,” the 27year-old says. He believes the Liberals will slip, but retain their majority—and that the Tories will pick up some of the protest vote in Atlantic Canada.

According to commentator Stephen Kimber, dean of journalism at King’s College, the unease over job security in Atlantic Canada is so pervasive that it affects even ridings like Halifax, where the unemployment rate is lower than the national average. So far,

McDonough has enjoyed strong support in the riding—NDP signs are sprouting in neighborhoods where they were virtually unseen in the past—but Liberal incumbent Mary Clancy has recently launched a strong counterattack. “The last week will be crucial because the attack will intensify,” Kimber says of the local race. “The ‘socialist horde’ stuff is going to come out—it’s an indication of the Liberals’ panic.”

BROSSARD/LA PRAIRIE Most panel members in the Montreal-area riding, which elected a Bloc MP in the last election, seem no closer to reaching a decision. While a few are leaning towards the Liberals, others seem deeply uncertain about which party to support. “I’m all mixed up,” admits secretary Marjolaine Emond, 31. “On the national unity issue, one’s black, one’s white, and another one’s grey,” she says. “I’d like concrete proof that they will create jobs, that they will stop cutting health care, that they will help low-income people.” Paulette Giddings, a unit co-ordinator at the Montreal General Hospital, is also looking for clear policies, especially on unemployment. “I

feel very discouraged for a lot of young people," she says. "I think that is a major issue." The Liberals will win, she predicts, but which party will form the Opposition is "the miffion-dollar question." Despite a very gradual improvement in unemployment in Quebec, many people remain discontented, notes national affairs journal ist Ronald Lebel, a Maclean's panel supervisor. Yet they are not sure who to blame, he adds. "Among francophones, there is strong sup port for government intervention in the economy," he notes. "People also want public services to be maintained as much as possible." In fact, massive cuts to the provincial payroll by the Parti Québécois government have infuriated labor leaders, who were among the Bloc's biggest supporters in the last election. As a result, Lebel notes, many in the labor movement are not doing the campaigning and

fund-raising that helped elect many Bloc MPs in 1993. "I be lieve the Liberals will win in Brossard," Lebel predicts, "be cause of lower turnout among francophones who supported the Bloc last time." ST. PAUL'S While several of the panelists in the affluent mid town Toronto riding remain un decided, others are beginning to make choices. Schoolteacher Paula MacKinnon, 34, is firm ing up a decision to vote NDPbut not necessarily because of the party's aggressive stance on job creation. "To some extent, unemployment is beyond the control of any particular party," she says, "as it has so much to do with cycles and trends." She is looking, she says, for action on social programs and training that takes account of a changing workplace. She picks the Liber als to form the next government and the Conservatives to be the Opposition, and when it comes to politicians keeping their word, she says that Prime Mm ister Jean Chrétien has "proved l himself a blatant liar." Graduate i law student Kevin Ackhurst, i however, is wavering between the Conservatives and the Lib

erals. "I'd really like to vote Tory-I don't like Jean Chrétien," Ackhurst, 25, says, "but there's still too much in the Tory platform I'm uncomfortable with." Like many panelists outside Quebec and Ontario, Ackhurst says governments do not have the power to create good jobs. Reform is most likely to form the Opposition, he predicts, partly because the Tories lack a strong regional base. `Their support is diffuse," he says. "It's the dilemma of be ing a national party" Commentator Robert Bothwell, professor of history at the University of Toronto, notes that voters seem to be better in formed about the causes of unemployment. "We've had this level of unemployment for so long, or close to it, since 1991, and nothing seems to change it," he notes. "The last time this happened was the Great Depression and political patterns were pretty stable thenpeople sort of accepted it and carried on. So it may indicate we've come to a plateau." CALGARY WEST While panelists in the middle-class riding, which voted Reform in 1993, have still shown no strong preference, they are almost all agreed that governments are not the primary en-

gine of job creation. Laboratory technician Barbara Cooper, 43, has narrowed it down to the Liberals or Tories. "I'm waiting to hear about national unity," she says. And even though she acknowledges that she could be laid off at any time, she says job security is not a compelling election issue for her. "I think I could find another job relatively quickly," she says. Agrologist Greg McAndrews, on the other hand, is definitely leaning towards the Tories. "They have a better platform and I am angry at all the other parties," says McAn drews, who is 48. He also holds views on unemployment that appear to be increasingly widespread. "Governments can't create jobs," he says. "The classic example is the Maritimes, where there are no fish left. You have to find something sustainable that can provide jobs. Jobs are so related to the global economy, anyway." According to commentator Keith Archer, professor of politi cal science at the University of Calgary, the idea of a secure job has become an oxymoron in Calgary, ever since the series of dis ruptions that began with the National Energy Program. On the oth er hand, Calgarians also believe they have options, he says, and compare their circumstances favorably with regions like New foundland, where the unemployed often have nowhere to turn. And despite the growing concern over unity, Archer says it is unlikely that many people will change their vote solely because the issue is gaining more attention. "People have a pretty good sense of where the parties stand on this," he says. PORT MOODY/COQUITLAM The Vancouver-area riding has been held by the NDP, Tories and Reform in its various guises since 1979, and perhaps not surprisingly, panelists are still expressing a wide range of opinion. Most, however, agree that governments have only limited powers to directly affect employment. Accoun tant Bill LaPointe, 48, says he is leaning towards Reform, mostly because of their policies on national unity. "What I need to change my mind is a straightforward answer from Charest on the unity is sue," he says. "As for the three major parties on economic issues," he adds, "they are really the same. They are Curly, Larry and Moe." But freelance television editor Geoff Scott, 32, says he will proba bly vote Liberal, mostly for lack of an alternative. "I am not sure any of the parties can solve the problem [of employment] ," he says. "They seem to be creating programs for young people, but not for people like me. None of the parties can solve this problem because they have no real ideas." The regional difference in attitudes to unemployment comes as little surprise to commentator John Richards, professor of busi ness at Simon Fraser University and a former NDP MLA in Saskatchewan. "I think there is quite a dramatic break in opinion at the Ottawa River," he says. Whether in Ralph Klein's Alberta or Roy Romanow's Saskatchewan, Canadians are accepting a newer view of unemployment, he says. That does not necessarily mean the em brace of a neoconservative corporate agenda, he says, and concern about social programs does not have to be abandoned. "But it's all in the context of having to balance the budget." But in Eastern Cana da, there is still the sense that government has the responsibility for jobs, he says, despite the recent efforts of some Maritime premiers to reduce deoendence on social welfare. o

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-Fran cois Begin 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.