Canada

A Sense of Timing

Liberals have to trust Chrétien that voters will not lash out against a fall election

John Geddes,Julian Beltrame October 9 2000
Canada

A Sense of Timing

Liberals have to trust Chrétien that voters will not lash out against a fall election

John Geddes,Julian Beltrame October 9 2000

A Sense of Timing

Canada

Liberals have to trust Chrétien that voters will not lash out against a fall election

John Geddes

Julian Beltrame

The name that fills some Liberals with foreboding as they gear up for a likely fall election is not Stockwell Day. It is David Peterson. Voters rebuked the former Ontario Liberal premier, who owned a huge lead in the polls when he called an early election in 1990, and handed the NDP a majority. But when nervous Liberal MPs raised the Peterson parable on political hubris in a recent caucus meeting, they were argued down. Peterson lost, the election hawks countered, because he had supported the unpopular Meech Lake accord. Election timing, they insisted, was not the big issue. Still, among Prime Minister Jean Chrétiens 101 Ontario MPs—for whom the Peterson lesson hits closest to home—sentiment runs against an early fall election. “Our view is that perhaps spring might be a better election time,” MP Brenda Chamberlain, the Ontario caucus chairman, told Macleans. “But having said that, we also respect the Prime Minister on his sense of timing.”

It comes down to Chrétiens storied instinct. After all, his gut has rarely failed him—or his party. He was proven right in calling an early vote in 1997, less than four years after his 1993 victory. Sure, the Liberal majority shmnk, but it was still a majority. Not that Chrétien has always favoured early elections. Party insiders remember well his private disapproval of John Turners decision to call one only a few months after winning the Liberal leadership and becoming prime minister in 1984. Turner, of course, was pummelled at the polls by Brian Mulroney. So when Chrétien thinks the time is right, most Liberals are inclined to defer to the boss. In fact, they have little choice: elections aren’t called on a show of hands. Chrétien will make the

decision—or already has—with a seThe Prime Minister:

lect group of advisers. As for backrelying on a gut that benchers with jitters, he sympathizes, has rarely failed him, “When they say they’re nervous, I say or his party that’s absolutely natural,” Chrétien

laughed last week. “This is going to be my 12th election, and every time I was very nervous.”

Polls suggest it is his adversaries who should be worried. The Liberals were supported by 47 per cent of decided voters in the latest Ekos Research Associates Inc. poll, conducted in August, up nine points from their winning vote share of the 1997 election. In the same Ekos poll, the Canadian Alliance stood at 23 per cent, up four points from the 1997 vote of its predecessor, the Reform party. Ekos president Frank Graves says the numbers show that even after the wave of publicity surrounding Day’s July 8 victory in the Alliance’s first leadership race, he has managed only to recapture traditional Reform support—not broaden the base beyond its western strongholds. “Stockwell Day’s recognition numbers have been going up dramatically,” says Graves. “But to the extent that people have seen him, they are saying, ‘Nice pecs, but I don’t think I want him for prime minister.’ ” Polling numbers can turn after an election writ is dropped—

particularly if voters smell crass opportunism on the part of the governing party. “The history books are full of examples of governments being punished for calling an unnecessary election,” says Rod Love, Days chief of staff.

Love points to the 1989 Alberta election, not Petersons 1990 debacle, as the closest parallel to the

voter backlash Chrétien might be courting. After the Alberta Liberals selected a popular, new leader, Laurence Decore, Conservative Premier Don Getty waited only a few months before calling a vote. Yet Getty had a large majority at the time and was less than three years into his mandate. He offered few credible reasons for going to the polls. “Getty didn’t want Decore to get any traction, so he went for it,” says Love. “He came within a hair of losing it.” The Alberta Tories’ share of the vote dropped to 44 per cent, the first time in almost two decades they had garnered less than half the vote. The Liberal vote jumped to 29 per cent from 12 per cent. Getty lost his own seat.

Alliance strategists plan to cultivate public resentment over an early election. “They’ll pay the price and we’ll remind them of it every day,” Love vows. Yet Day may have undermined that attack in advance last week when he dared Chrétien to either resign “or call an election based on his record as being the highest-taxing leader of the G-7 countries.” It was the sort of Question Period rhetoric that normally goes unremarked, but Liberal strategists pounced gleefully on Day’s challenge. How can he demand an election and then complain if one is called? So Chrétien has his pat response for the campaign trail. Still, the Liberals will need a platform—not

just a snappy answer to Alliance charges of cynicism—to persuade voters the election has a purpose. Work on core economic policies moved into high gear last week, when Finance Minister Paul Martin ordered his officials to start work on turning his usual fall economic update into what could be a mid-October mini-budget. The highlights would likely be broad, middleclass tax cuts, and more targeted breaks aimed at entrepreneurs and investors in the high-tech sector.

Finance officials said Martin would be hard-pressed to unveil his plan before the week of Oct. 16. With the death of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, an election call earlier than that week might appear ungracious in any case. Still, leaving the call as late as Oct. 22 would still allow Chrétien to set Nov. 27 as election day, given the legal requirement for at least a 36-day campaign. (Liberal officials stressed that no decision to hold a fall vote has been made—let alone the date decided.) If the date is set for late November, it would be less than 3V2 years since the June 2, 1997, federal election. Peterson’s calamitous 1990 election came just under three years after he won a majority in 1987. What does he think about the parallel? “I have no advice for the Prime Minister,” he said tersely when contacted by Macleans last week. Asked if he thought calling an election before the traditional fouryear mark cost him his government, Peterson said: “It was my obvious deficiencies that caused the loss.” Now, federal Liberals are hoping any deficiencies of their own can withstand the extra scrutiny that would come with asking Canadians to vote early. E¡3

Signs an election is imminent

The prospect of an election, like a hanging, has been wonderfully effective in concentrating the government’s mind. The Liberals knew they had some fencemending to do in Adantic Canada, where angry voters in 1997 reduced them to 11 seats from 31. They may need to recoup some of their East Coast losses should there be slippage in Ontario, where holding the 101 of 103 seats they won last time out could prove formidable. The first phase of the win-back-the-Adantic strategy was put in place on June 29, when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien committed over $700 million to encourage investment in the region. The final piece was hurried into

the House late last week, when the government tabled a bill to undo many of the reforms in Employment Insurance that hit the Maritimes and Newfoundland hard by cutting back benefits to seasonal workers. And, surprise, most of the changes were scheduled to come into effect on Oct. 1.

The government has been busy on national issues, as well. On Sept. 11, the Prime Minister and the premiers agreed on a milestone health accord that boosts the federal contribution to $18.3 billion next year from the current $15.5 billion. A further $2.2 billion went for earlychildhood development, giving flesh to the government’s much-hyped, but litde

understood, children’s agenda. And in the time left for Chrétien to call a fall vote, Finance Minister Paul Martin is widely expected to offer middle-class tax relief in a mini-budget.

Just as critical as positive steps taken to prepare for an election is avoiding pitfalls. If the writ is dropped early enough, the government would be dissolved before Auditor General Denis Desautels has a chance to table a potentially explosive report on the job grants scandal at Human Resources Development Canada. Desautels had been expected to drop his bombshell in mid-October. Some business, as far as the Liberals are concerned, is best left unfinished.

J.B.