Election 2000 Cover

Playing the Odds

With the economy hot and the polls good, the Liberals roll the election dice

John Geddes October 30 2000
Election 2000 Cover

Playing the Odds

With the economy hot and the polls good, the Liberals roll the election dice

John Geddes October 30 2000
Perhaps only his wife, Aline Chrétien, really knows when the Prime Minister decided that this fall was the time to go to the voters again. But that doesn’t stop just about everyone who works in federal politics from espousing a theory. Some speculate that as long ago as last March, when Paul Martin backers were publicly pushing him to step down, Jean Chrétien judged he could not hold his divided caucus together long enough to wait until the traditional four-year mandate was up in the spring of 2001. Or he could have made the decision early last July, when Stockwell Day won the Canadian Alliance leadership race. (Better to risk an early call, Chrétien might have calculated, than give Day time to establish himself.) Or was the timing based less on strategy than instinct? Maybe the old election juices started flowing during, say, a summer campaign-style jaunt he took to the New Brunswick constituency he once represented in the House of Commons.

That Beauséjour/Petitcodiac riding is close to Chrétien's heart. It was there that he won a 1990 byelection to mark his return to active politics after four years in exile from the life he loves while John Turner led the Liberals. He went back to run in his old Saint-Maurice, Que., riding for his triumphant 1993 campaign, but kept a fond eye on the New Brunswick seat. When it went NDP in the 1997 election—part of the East Coast backlash against Chrétien's unemployment insurance reforms—the loss stung. To make matters worse, the beaten Liberal candidate was Dominic LeBlanc, son of his close friend Roméo LeBlanc, the former governor general. This is one riding Chrétien wants back badly. So on Aug. 2, apparently without much advance planning, he dropped in on Dominic for a nostalgic tour of the fishing village of Cap-Pelé, where he had rented a cottage when he served as the local MP Dominic LeBlanc describes that day as one of unrefined, old-fashioned, ego-warming politicking. “The people here feel an attachment to him,” he recalls. “We visited a few wharves, a coffee shop and a grocery store, and the reaction was overwhelming. Unannounced, no press, we showed up on a wharf where about 15 guys were getting their lobster traps ready, and they took the Prime Minister out for a spin in a boat.” Those few hours were a distillation of everything Chrétien is said to relish about campaigning: a trusted Liberal stalwart at his side, a chance to give his famous folksy rapport with Canadians a workout, and behind it all, a partisan score just waiting to be settled. “You could feel his enthusiasm,” says LeBlanc, 32, who is running in Beauséjour/Petitcodiac again in the election that Chrétien was widely expected to call on Sunday for Nov. 27.

Of course, this campaign is driven by more than Chrétien's urge to get out on the hustings and have fun. The Liberals are riding on a wave of poll results so formidable that their strategists scarcely believe the numbers. Ekos Research Associates Inc.—not Chrétien's official pollster, but a firm he respects—recently pegged Liberal support at 50 per cent, 12 points higher than the party garnered in winning its majority in the 1997 election. The same poll registered 19-per-cent support for the Canadian Alliance, level with the 1997 vote share claimed by its predecessor, the Reform party. In other words, Day appears to have brought the party scant new support, while Chretien's popularity seems to have grown during his second term. As for the also-rans, the Conservatives at 11 per cent and NDP at eight per cent are in danger of being decimated. And while the Bloc Québécois remains strong in Quebec, even there the Liberals appear poised to pick up a few new seats. In fact, in every province save the Alliance’s Alberta stronghold, the Liberals head into Campaign 2000 as the front-running party.

So why are many Liberals nervous? A recent sequence of blows did not help. First came the embarrassing climb down from Chrétien's hasty announcement that Mount Logan in the Yukon would be renamed for the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Then, more seriously, came successive searing reports from the information commissioner, accusing Chrétien of running a secretive regime, and the auditor general, confirming the scope of mismanagement uncovered in last winter’s job-grants funding scandal. Finally, Chrétien's recruitment of Brian Tobin to run in the election backfired when many MPs were annoyed at his decision to oust popular George Baker from his post as veterans affairs minister to make room for the resigning Newfoundland premier as his province’s cabinet representative.

But the misgivings run deeper than a bad week’s worth of headlines. Much of Chrétien's caucus openly opposed an early call until a few weeks ago, pleading with the Prime Minister to hold off until next spring. Chrétien chalked up their reluctance to the usual jitters of MPs worried about keeping their jobs, but there are real reasons for Liberals to be looking over their shoulders. For one thing, pollsters do not expect the party’s high numbers to hold up in every region through a five-week campaign. Take British Columbia, where Ekos gave the Liberals a daunting 48-per-cent to 33-per-cent edge over the Alliance. “That’s certainly a soft number for the Liberals,” cautions Ekos president Frank Graves. “We saw similar numbers going into the last election, when the biggest collapse the Liberals saw was in British Columbia.”

Along with memories of their own 1997 meltdowns on both coasts to worry them, federal Liberals can stew over recent examples of voters teaching provincial governing parties hard lessons. Last year alone, New Brunswick’s Liberals blew a sizable pre-campaign lead to lose power to Tory upstart Bernard Lord; Manitoba’s long-governing Tories were beaten by the NDP; and Saskatchewan’s NDP, under Roy Romanow, squandered much of a comfortable polling edge to be relegated to minority status by the new Saskatchewan Party. Romanow announced last month he was leaving politics—a less than glorious end to a distinguished career that must have given Chrétien pause.

These are the tales federal opposition party campaigners are telling each other as they cling to hope. John Laschinger, national campaign manager for Joe Clark’s Tories and a key tactician in Lord’s New Brunswick triumph, insists his private polling suggests a parallel between the way that provincial contest turned around and what might happen in the federal one. “If you took only the polls that are public today, it’s a slam-dunk for the Liberals, it’s all over,” admits Laschinger. “But I think Liberal support is soft—they’re sitting on a base of soft mud.” Members of Chrétiens campaign team say they, too, invest little faith in pre-campaign polls. “When you go into an election, you can’t take anything for granted,” says David Smith, co-chairman of both the Liberal national campaign and the party’s campaign organization for the crucial Ontario battleground. Smith says the key element in this election that makes it more likely Liberal support will solidify, rather than erode, is the “polarization” of the vote between Liberals and the Alliance.

In fact, polarization is a word Liberal election tacticians and candidates repeat so often it amounts to their unofficial election slogan. It has been that way ever since Chrétien delivered a blisteringly partisan attack on Day at a late-August Liberal caucus meeting—leaving no doubt that he views the Tories and NDP as distractions barely worth mentioning. Part of the reason Liberals are dismissing Clark and NDP Leader Alexa McDonough is simple arithmetic. After all, their parties’ combined polling support is only about equal to the Alliance’s numbers. Worse still, NDP and Tory support is dissipated across the country, without enough regional concentration to deliver more than a smattering of seats. Meanwhile, the Alliance’s support is concentrated in Alberta and British Columbia, and to a lesser degree in Manitoba and Saskatchewan—all but ensuring that Day will lead a respectable western contingent of MPs back into the House. The aim of the polarization message is to persuade residual New Democrat voters, and even some Red Tories, to vote Liberal out of distaste for the Alliance. “If somebody is uncomfortable about the Alliance, then there is only one other team to support,” says Smith. “The Tories and NDP will be further marginalized.”

Along with its tactical aim of obliterating NDP and Tory support, the polarization theme gives the Liberals something else they need—a sense of mission. There is no other apparent justification for an early election call. The economy has been cruising along powerfully for so long now that the business cycle is a fading memory. The only policy challenge big enough on its own to have justified a vote—the rift with the provinces over health care—was settled amicably last month when Chrétien and the premiers agreed to a deal that will see Ottawa hand over $23.4 billion in new health funding over five years. That leaves Liberals casting the campaign as a crusade against Day’s purported threat to Canadian values. One close adviser to the Prime Minister said the question Liberals want voters to be asking themselves as they step into polling booths is this: “Do we want to preserve all those things that we feel good about, like our universal health care? Or do we want to take a very sharp turn to the right?” But Day is not letting himself be dragged easily into the clash over values. The platform he released in Waterloo, Ont., before the election call was a soothing pamphlet aimed at Ontario provincial Tory voters who must swing to the Alliance if the party is to put a dent in Liberal dominance of the most voterich province. Consider health care—an issue Liberals had hoped to challenge Day on at every turn. His core promise is to increase funding and pass a law vowing never to unilaterally cut transfers to the provinces. That hardly sounds like the end of medicare. Deeper changes are hinted at, but only as a fuzzy commitment that an Alliance government would be open to negotiating ways for the provinces to gain more say in enforcing the Canada Health Act.

Shielding Day from charges that he would dismande health care or jeopardize other social programs was a key goal of the Alliance Ontario strategy—a mission it may have largely accomplished. But on its other clear aim, establishing the Alliance as the party of tax relief, Day could be in trouble. Last week, Finance Minister Paul Martin tabled a so-called mini-budget laden with tax cuts that are anything but minuscule. The reviews from private-sector experts told the story. “Chock-full of crowd-pleasing items,” said securities dealer BMO Nesbitt Burns. An “intelligent shaking of the pre-election money tree,” concluded Standard and Poor’s DRI economic forecasting unit. A “veritable bounty of benefits,” chimed in Bank of Nova Scotia. The centrepiece tax measures earning all the kudos: cuts at all income levels, especially for taxpayers who would fall in a newly created tax bracket for those earning $60,000 to $100,000.

Martin’s package was painstakingly constructed to contrast with the Alliance’s dramatic tax plan. Day proposes a two-tier personal tax system, 17 per cent levied on income up to $100,000 and 25 per cent above that. (The 25-per-cent bracket would be cut to 17 per cent in the second term of an Alliance government.) Martin’s plan will leave four tax brackets: 29 per cent for those earning $100,000 or more; 26 per cent for income of $60,000 to $100,000; 22 per cent for income of $30,000 to $60,000; and a 16-per-cent rate for income up to $30,000. According to Martin’s officials, the Alliance plan gives 35 per cent of its tax reductions to Canadians earning $100,000 or more, while the Liberal plan distributes just 19 per cent of its tax relief to that highest income bracket.

Martin slammed the Alliance plan as one that would “deliver to upper-income Canadians tax relief that rightly belongs to the middle class.” That attack prompted Alliance MP Jason Kenney, Day’s top lieutenant and co-chairman of his election campaign team, to angrily accuse him of resorting to “the demagogic rhetoric of class warfare.” In fact, the duelling speeches between Martin and Kenney on the floor of the House may have given the best taste yet of the sort of sparks the campaign could produce. www.macleans.ca to follow the election campaign

All the emphasis on Martin in the days leading up to the election call had many Liberals wondering how prominent he will be in the campaign. Despite entrenched hard feelings between the Chretien and Martin camps, the Prime Minister’s top advisers were stressing last week that they want the finance minister to play a high-profile role. As evidence, they pointed out that Martin and Chretien have already filmed a campaign TV advertisement together. But one Martin supporter noted that the only ad featuring both politicians shot so far is part of the French-language campaign—suggesting Chrétien plans to draw on Martin’s strong standing in Quebec, but limit national exposure that might enhance Martin’s status as Liberal heir apparent. And while a few prominent Martin backers have formal campaign roles, others complained privately that they feel cut out of the election action by Chrétien's tight inner circle.

If Chrétiens relationship with Martin seems defensive, so did his whole style of governing in recent days. Information commissioner John Reid, who investigates complaints the government is violating Canada’s freedom of information law, singled out the Prime Minister’s Office for refusing to co-operate with valid requests for documents, and accused the Liberals of mounting “a full counterattack” against the rules that limit government secrecy. Auditor General Denis Desautels reported that his investigators found mismanagement “in all key areas and in all the programs we examined” in the human resources development department. Chrétien brushed off the reports. “In public administration,” he said blandly, “there are always some problems and we try to correct them.” Intense pressure from the opposition, the media, even the two public-service watchdogs, failed to squeeze a drop of contrition out of him. Appearing late last week at a news conference with Ontario Premier Mike Harris and Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman to announce a joint $1.5-billion waterfront revitalization plan for the city, he was a politician in full election mode.

Perhaps that should come as no surprise. In his best-selling 1985 autobiography, Straight from the Heart, Chrétien spelled out his philosophy of political survival. “The press wants to get you. The opposition wants to get you. Even some of the bureaucrats want to get you,” he wrote. “They all have an interest in making you look bad.” No wonder he revels in getting out to a New Brunswick village. In this election, though, Day’s strategists are vowing not to let Canadians forget about Chrétiens tough Ottawa operating style as he switches to his more avuncular campaign style. The danger for the Prime Minister is that this time the baggage of two terms of government could begin to drag him down. The problem for Day is that polls suggest Canadians think Chrétien carries the weight well.—Vote at www.macleans.ca

Which party leader would make the best prime minister:Jean Chrétien, Stockwell Day, Alexa McDonough, Joe Clark or Gilles Duceppe?



A bad report card

Auditor General Denis Desautels put the Liberals on the defensive last week when he released a scathing review of the government's mismanagement of funds. Some of the 80-page report’s findings:

• The government’s claim that Human Resources and Development Canada’s $400-million Transitional Jobs Fund created 30,000 jobs over three years was deemed “overestimated.” Desautels also said that HRDC mismanagement was far worse that previously thought.

• Without the House’s consent, $100 million was allocated to turn Toronto’s old Downsview military base into a park and butterfly garden.

• Health Canada does not adequately monitor the distribution of prescription drugs on native reserves, providing easy access to excessive quantities.

• The Canadian International Development Agency issued a $6.3-million contract to a company run by a friend of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, whose first bid failed to meet contract criteria.

• Transport Canada leased airports to private authorities beginning in 1992 before first assessing the worth of the facilities, resulting in the loss of $474 million in rent alone.