It was not always pretty, but Jean Chrétien got the job done. He gambled by calling an early election, overruling apprehensive advisers and a downright panicky Liberal caucus. He plunged, or perhaps was dragged, into the most acrimonious federal campaign in memory. The result, though, was everything a Liberal could ask for—and more. The party took 173 seats (results as of 3 a.m. on the morning after the Nov. 27 vote) in the House of Commons, far outstripping Stockwell Days Canadian Alliance with 66, the Bloc Québécois with 37, the New Democrats with 13 and the Conservatives with just 12. So Chrétien claimed a triumphant place in history as the first leader to deliver three straight majority governments since William Lyon Mackenzie King accomplished the feat in 1935, 1940 and 1945. “We offered a balanced and moderate approach,” Chrétien said in victory. “Tonight, the people of Canada have renewed their confidence in our program, in our team and in my leadership.”
The Liberals marched into the campaign expecting to win, but the victory came embellished with some remarkable gains. In Chrétien's home province of Quebec, where he is so often dismissed as terribly unpopular among francophones, the Liberals boosted their seat total to 37 from the 29 they held when Parliament was dissolved for the election. So much for talk of Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe’s solid performance on the hustings, which had pundits suggesting he had refurbished his weak image (although the BQ did emerge with a respectable 37 seats of the 75). In Ontario, the Liberals returned an overwhelming 100 MPs—the firm foundation of their national domination—leaving just one for the NDP and two for the Alliance. That was not enough for Day to seriously claim he had orchestrated the breakthrough that the Alliance, born out of the old Reform party, was to deliver. “The message to us is not yet, not this time,” Day said in conceding defeat. “And we hear that message.”
But he also boldly staked his claim to representing an important swath of Canadian voters. “We continue to be the federal alternative for those who would choose another form of government,” Day declared. “And we will work towards that for the next election.” He vowed to speak on the national stage for groups the Alliance claims the Liberals too often ignore—from victims of crime, to farmers and hardworking taxpayers.
The Liberals celebrated a smashing victory, but could wake up to misgivings. Yes, Chrétien increased his majority—but only after a messy 36-day race in which his own reputation may have been permanently dented. Conciliatory statements from the leaders made election night family viewing, but much of the campaign was rougher stuff. Chrétien suggested, at one point, that the Alliance was out to “destroy Canada” and later hinted that the party represented “forces of darkness.” Day was at least as hard-hitting, charging that the Prime Ministers justice policy put the rights of pedophiles over those of children, and that Chrétien might have committed a crime in lobbying for a federal loan to a hotel in his riding. Even NDP Leader Alexa McDonough resorted to low blows, likening Day to a cockroach, while Joe Clarks Tories ran attack TV ads that accused Chrétien of being a serial liar.
The cycle of nasty remarks was partly the result of modern communications technology, mused Senator Ross Fitzpatrick, an old friend of Chrétien and a key B.C. Liberal organizer. With cellphones, e-mail and 24-hour all-news TV, reporters kept up with every remark made anywhere in the country by any of the leaders. That led to rapid—and often barely considered—reactions to just about anything remotely controversial. “You know within 30 minutes what the other side has said, and there will be responses all the way around in the next scrum,” lamented Fitzpatrick, who travelled with Chrétien during some of the campaign. “The media is aggressive in demanding answers. That adds to the intensity of it.”
The bitter feelings left over from the intensity of the campaign could make the House a bitterly divided place when MPs return to Ottawa. And those divisions have a disturbing regional character. The Alliance was all but vanquished in Ontario—but Day blocked Liberals out of most of the West even more firmly than Preston Manning did before him. The Alliance took 64 seats from Manitoba to British Columbia, relegating the Liberals to just 14. “It raises again all the old questions about western alienation and national unity,” said University of Calgary political science professor David Taras. Many westerners began the campaign either sadly resigned to, or in some quarters firmly outraged over, the fact that Chrétien had called the election in which he had little hope of boosting representation from the West. The Liberal majority would be secured in Ontario, Quebec and the strategically key Atlantic provinces.
In Alberta, especially, the feeling of being discounted by the Liberals was aggravated when the party began running television ads claiming that Day, as a member of Ralph Klein’s Conservative government, had put the province on the road to American-style, two-tiered health care. While Bill 11, the health-care legislation being targeted, was fair political game, the inevitable perception in Alberta was that the province had been singled out for scorn. Resentment deepened in the final week of the campaign when Chrétien joked to a New Brunswick audience that he likes to “do politics with people from the East” rather than with people like Day and Clark who, he said, “are from Alberta—they are a different type.” Chrétien issued a partial apology later, but the damage had been done. The story made front-page news in all of the major Alberta newspapers: “We’re a joke to Chrétien” went the headline in The Calgary Sun.
In Atlantic Canada, voters were left with little doubt about how seriously Liberals take them. Chrétien's East Coast strategy was simple, but costly. Last summer, the Liberals announced that $700 million would be poured into the region in a new gush of old-style economic-development spending. Even more remarkably, the Employment Insurance overhaul that was meant to gradually discourage a chronic pattern of seasonal work subsidized with El benefits was largely reversed in an abrupt pre-election disavowal of one of the boldest policy thrusts from the Chrétien government’s first mandate. The Prime Minister apologized for ever having gone down that track.
Along with spending money and enriching El, the Liberals hoped the spectre of the Alliance would boost its chances in Newfoundland and the Maritimes.
The Alliance’s opposition to regional economic development spending makes it anathema to many East Coast voters. So the Liberals presented the choice as a strict dichotomy: Chrétien or Day. The implication with respect to other options: don’t waste a vote on the lowly Tories or the NDP The message seemed to hit home: the Liberals took 19 Adantic seats.
The NDP’s McDonough held her own Halifax riding, but saw her party drop to four seats in the region from seven. “A lot of people said we were going out of existence,” she said. “So we’re pretty happy that it turned out not to be true.”
The Atlantic results set the tone for a disappointing election night for the New Democrats and the Tories, who managed to win nine East Coast seats, down from 13 when the election was called. But both parties avoided the oblivion that some observers had predicted for them at the campaign’s outset. Clark, who was widely credited with running the best campaign of any leader, even won his Calgary Centre seat—no small feat given the Alliance tide in Alberta. That was enough for his Conservatives to cling to official-party status in the House of Commons with the bare minimum of 12 seats. Clark took the Calgary race—which he entered trailing well behind both the Alliance incumbent and the Liberal challenger—by successfully appealing to disaffected left-of-centre voters who saw him as a kindred spirit and their best chance to oust Alliance MP Eric Lowther. “We did the impossible in Calgary Centre,”
Clark crowed. He was aided by the fact that Lowther—a low-key, one-term MP closely associated with social conservative causes—was never a very logical fit for the diverse downtown riding, which has a relatively high concentration of gays, immigrants and left-leaning young people. But that did not take away from Clark’s gutsy win in a riding where his candidacy initially drew widespread ridicule. “It’s a great personal triumph and a vindication for him,” said Taras. “The man who was humiliated in 1979 and 1980 and who was the laughingstock of Canadian politics can now savour a very personal victory. It’s a fascinating human story.”
According to Alberta Tory Senator Ron Ghitter, the results mean that the Tories are far from dead—and that the Alliance and the Conservatives will continue to duke it out as the alternative to the Liberals. “There’s no way that Progressive Conservatives find any appeal in Stockwell Day and what he stands for,” he said. And despite ending up far behind the Alliance, Clark defiantly argued in a feisty speech that he had absolutely no intention of uniting with Day’s party. “Canada needs a national alternative to the Liberal party,” he said.
But Chrétien made a powerful case—backed up by sheer numbers—that, at least for now, Canadians are showing no sign of strong longing for any alternative to his government. Still, far from gloating, he tried to play down the strife and personal attacks that marred the campaign. (One sign that the ugliness may have affected the public was that voter turnout dropped to 62 per cent from 67 per cent in 1997.) “We just finished a hard-fought campaign,” he told a crowd in his home town of Shawinigan, “a campaign that was, frankly, too negative and far too personal. The Canadian people expect us to carry out our responsibilities with tolerance, openness and civility, and that I will do.” It was the sort of pledge that Canadians must have been listening for at the close of a race many voters watched with distaste. The question now is whether Chrétien and his Liberals, more secure in power than ever, can find a way to govern with grace after a campaign devoid of it.
With John DeMont in Halifax, Julian Beltrame in Shawinigan, Que., Brenda Branswell in Montreal, Mary Janigan and Robert Sheppard in Toronto, Brian Bergman in Calgary and Ken MacQueen in Penticton BC
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