An uncertain nation gives the PM good marks—for now
Percentage saying Chrétien should not run for a third term: Quebecers: 60 Rest of Canada: 43
Percentage saying they are more optimistic about the future than they were a decade ago: Quebecers: 28 Rest of Canada: 33
Percentage saying they are more confident of their ability to look after their economic interests than they were a few years ago: Quebecers: 69 Rest of Canada: 64
Percentage citing health, education and other social services as the most important problem: Women: 30 Men: 12
In sync with the voters
An uncertain nation gives the PM good marks—for now
True to his small-town, cautious nature, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien likes to say that when it comes to making promises, perhaps his most important vow is that he will not make too many. “I don’t believe in the vision thing, in grand promises and projects,” Chrétien said in a 1996 interview. “For me, I am a problem-solver.” That helps explain why, in two federal elections since he became leader of the Liberal party in 1990, the party’s platform has been modest, ambiguous and focused more on tinkering with old programs than on creating new ones. The highlight of their 1993 campaign, for example, was a relatively inexpensive commitment to provide $6 billion to repair elements of the country’s infrastructure. In 1997, the Liberals’ key promise was that once they had eliminated the annual budget deficit, they would take care not to spend all of the surplus in any one place.
Hardly the stuff of political legend, but it was enough to propel the Liberals to their first back-to-back majorities since the 1950s. And, based on the findings of the Maclean’s/Strategic Counsel poll, the Liberals’ prudence reflects the wishes and attitudes of respondents countrywide. Never mind that Chrétien has been mauled in the media for much of the last year for his uneven performance on a variety of issues: his level of support remains remarkably high for someone who has been in office for more than five years. For now, that is. In a deft display of political hairsplitting, respondents show a strong preference for his Liberal party over all other contenders—but at the same time, a slim majority do not want him to lead the Liberals into another election. If he does run again, the poll suggests that his most serious opponent may not be the Reform party’s Preston Manning, leader of the official Opposition, but rather Joe Clark, the reborn leader of the Progressive Conservatives.
On the eve of a new millennium, Canadians are divided among optimism, pessimism, and uncertainty about the future, particularly on economic issues. The re-election of the Parti Québécois and the prospect of another referendum may have piqued the interest of politicians and the media, but not that of many Canadians. Fewer than one in 10 respondents cite national unity as their greatest concern. Instead, they worry about unemployment, health care, social service and education programs, and what is widely seen as a growing gap between rich and poor.
And as crucial federal-provincial bargaining gets under way concerning the so-called social union, with the provinces seeking greater control from Ottawa over social programs, a majority side with them on a key bone of contention: 58 per cent say Ottawa should not be allowed to establish rules governing such programs as a condition of giving the provinces money. At the same time, respondents wish that government would provide a greater sense of equality among Canadians, but doubt its ability to do so. Those same mixed feelings are evident on the unity front. Overall, Canadians fret less than they have in the past about their country’s constitutional future, but still consider the question of Quebee’s place in Canada far from resolved. And they do not regard Chrétien as the best choice to lead the federalist side into another referendum—an honour reserved for the Quebec Liberals’ Jean Charest (page 26). In fact, in virtually every major policy area, the
good news for both the ruling Liberals—and for other Canadians—is interspersed with doubts or outright skepticism about the future. Even as
economic globalization makes the world seem at once smaller and yet more foreboding, respondents appear content with their place in it. Strong majorities do not think they would be any better off if they lived in another country, and feel confident of their ability to look after themselves. Part of the reason is a growing trend towards individualism in recent years: more than 70 per cent of respondents think they themselves—as opposed to government, labour unions or business leaders—are best able to take care of their economic interests.
But behind that image of muscular self-sufficiency lie some hidden concerns. One reason Canadians feel more inclined to take care of themselves is that, in an era of government cost-cutting and reduced services, they clearly feel they have no choice. But there is still some nostalgia for bigger government. By an overwhelming margin, respondents say their greatest concerns for the future are a faltering economy and resultant unemployment, while worries over government excess and the size of the deficit rank far behind. Those worries, applied towards the future, may be well founded: a forecast released in early December by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development said that Canada’s lagging productivity could
cause its standard of living to fall dramatically over the next 25 years. And more than 70 per cent of respondents think the government should deal with unemployment by either increasing spending to stimulate the economy, or by providing more money for the unemployed. Fewer than a quarter think the problem should be resolved by letting the free market run its course. Similarly, 50 per cent think the government should intervene to stem a growing gap between rich and poor, while only 18 per cent think it should do nothing. Some of those concerns, in fact, were echoed in a report issued early in December by the United Nations committee on economic, social and cultural rights. It criticized Canada’s treatment of groups including aboriginals, the poor and homeless and called for the federal government to spend more money on social programs that have been either eliminated or reduced in size as part of deficit-fighting efforts in the last decade.
On the surface, none of that may seem to bode well for the Liberals because of their commitment to avoid spending increases and keep the budget balanced. But once again, respondents seem to approve of their middle-of-the-road approach: when asked how any future surplus should be spent, respondents suggested a fairly even distribution of the money for tax cuts, paying down the national debt, and increasing money spent on health and other social service programs. That roughly parallels government plans for spending any surplus. In short, Canadians and their political leaders both seem to wish they had greater resources available to throw at problems, but recognize that they do not.
That, in turn, has led people to reduce their expectations of what government can do for them—a mind-set that helps the party in power. But along with that, the ability of the Liberals to maintain widespread support after five years in power—coupled with the failure of the four other largest parties to make significant inroads—is remarkable. A majority of respondents cite the Liberals as the party they most identify with, while the Tories, under Clark, are second with only a third as much support.
Even in Quebec, where the Prime Minister is reviled in the media and the Bloc Québécois holds a majority of the province’s 75 House of Commons seats, the Liberals hold a healthy lead.
Those figures should provide welcome comfort for the Prime Minister, who has received rough treatment in the media over his performance on several issues. One involves questions about any role he may have played in directing security arrangements for the November, 1997, meeting of leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation countries in Vancouver. There, student protesters were manhandled by the RCMP, who used pepper spray on them. Another is the increasing sense that Chrétien is a liability in the unity debate, a concern only enhanced when he appeared to slam the door on future constitutional change in an interview he gave to a Quebec newspaper during the province’s election campaign.
While such incidents may have caused some doubts about Chrétien, there has been no significant dip in his overall popularity. On the positive side, he remains the top choice of the most respondents when asked whom they would prefer as prime minister. And almost half already say—less than 18 months into a second-five year term—that the 64-year-old Chrétien should run for a third term.
But there are several reasons why he should give that notion second thoughts. Although he tops the list of preferred choices as prime minister, he holds that honour with the support of only 19 per cent of respondents. And a slim majority, 52 per cent, think he should retire before the end of this term.
In the meantime, the Liberals would do well to keep a wary eye on two areas: the performance of Clark, who took over the Conservatives for the second time in November, and ongoing efforts to bring the Tories and Reform together in the unite-the-right movement. That effort is eagerly espoused by some Ontario provincial Tories, many Reformers and some members of the media—particularly the new National Post, which has made the project a sort of raison d’être, providing extensive, favourable news coverage and editorials. And while the Tories draw 17 per cent and Reform 11 per cent on their own, 36 per cent of respondents say they would vote for a united party, which suggests that their range of potential voters could expand significantly in a union.
But negative indicators in the poll temper the good news for unitethe-right proponents. A new party based on such a merger, it appears, would gain some ground on the Liberals, but not nearly enough to defeat them. As for Manning, he ranks far behind Clark as the choice for leader among respondents who support a merger (page 28). In fact, Clark, who staunchly opposes merging with Reform, emerges in many ways as the leader who is making the best gains among respondents. His Tories rank six percentage points ahead of third-place Reform, and the party’s support is fairly consistent across the country.
The Liberals, after more than five years in power, have had ample time to put their stamp on the country with their policies and actions. The respondents’ reactions provide a report card on how well they have fared. They score well on deficit reduction, arguably the Liberals’ greatest success, which has dropped from from being the number 1 concern of 23 per cent of respondents in 1993 to being cited by just 14 per cent of respondents this year. And while unease about unemployment and the economy tops this year’s list for the ninth straight time, the numbers have fallen in five years from 50 per cent to 28 per cent. But on the Quebec question—arguably the government’s weak spot—Canadians’ confidence in Chrétien and his government is, to say the least, muted.
All of which is to say that, for better or worse, Canadians and their Prime Minister seem to be approaching the end of the century in a compatible, sanguine fashion. They will keep a careful eye on the rest of the world, and always consider all their options. That may not constitute any form of grand vision—but on the other hand, that philosophy will never need a great revision.
A CRY FOR BETTER SERVICES
At Saint the age John—says of 72, Vera she Taylor decided of Quispamsis, long ago that N.B.—a “hard work small is a community remedy to near almost any problem.” Twice widowed, Taylor has 11 children and 18 grandchildren—and still works as a community volunteer. Despite her self-reliance, she worries that cutbacks in such areas as health care, education and social services are eroding the quality of life and opportunities for her family. “It’s so hard for kids starting out,” says Taylor. “Government should be there when people need help. But you only hear from the politicians at election time."
Echoing those sentiments, 22 per cent of respondents to the Maclean's!CBC year-end poll said the most important problem facing Canada is the need for better health care and other social services. As recently as three years ago, that concern did not register in polling for the most important problem. In 1996, it was cited by 11 per cent of respondents; then last year by 15 per cent. Now, it is the number 2 worry of Canadians, topped only by a declining concern about unemployment and the economy (at 28 per cent). The reason for the emerging unease, says pollster Allan Gregg, “is simply a growing sense that the existing infrastructure is breaking down.”
The public is getting that message across to politicians. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the 10 premiers recently began discussing a social union aimed at giving the provinces more say in designing and managing such programs. And, the Prime Minister has said repeatedly, finding new money for health care is his government’s next priority. Another likely measure in the federal budget in February will be $155 million for a program to help train disadvantaged young people to find jobs. Taylor welcomes that prospect— with one caveat. “Before they spend that money on training and ads," she says firmly, “they better be sure there are some new jobs for them to go to.”
In 1993, the year the Liberals took office, 73% cited unemployment, economy, deficit or government spending as their top concern. This year 42% do the same.
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