Why Day can become PM

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 10 2000

Why Day can become PM

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 10 2000

Why Day can become PM

Anthony Wilson-Smith

See if the following sounds like you, or anyone you know: picture a married couple in their 30s or 40s, both working, with a couple of kids, a mortgage and a house in the suburbs. They don’t have anything against gay people—for that matter, they don’t really know any. They’re not especially religious, but admire those who are. They support gun control in principle—but can’t help noting that criminals never seem to have trouble finding guns. They voted Liberal in the past couple of federal elections, but think Jean Chrétien has overstayed his welcome. Now, they can’t stand the way the Liberals throw around money on big make-work projects for supporters, and why won’t they just cut taxes instead? After all, June 30, as the newspapers duly noted, marked the first day of the year that taxpayers worked free and clear for themselves, rather than giving their money to government.

There probably aren’t more than, say, a few gazillion Canadians in like circumstances across the country. And in many ways, the question as the next election approaches is why they wouldn’t vote for Stockwell Day and the Canadian Alliance. The answer, members of the media, Liberals and most of the chattering classes will tell you, is that Day is too extreme in his views, too unfriendly to gays, too friendly to gun owners, too unknown, and backed by too many spooky people to be able to win. (And, of course, he has to bump off Preston Manning in the July 8 leadership vote—but that seems increasingly likely.) Amidst all that surety among pundits about Day’s coming demise at the polls, here are five arguments that it is not necessarily so:

• Voters vote against a government rather than for an opposition party. In 1993, the Libs offered few changes from Conservative policy, but emphasized the fact they weren’t the Tories: that was enough. In 1997, they came within a handful of seats of losing their majority. This time, the PM is far less popular. That makes voters much more likely to shop around, and having found all the other leaders previously wanting, to look closely at the new kid on the block.

• Voters change positions more dramatically than pundits acknowledge. For a quarter of a century, Quebecers have swung routinely between electing federalist and sovereigntist governments—about as sharp a distinction as you can have. Over the past decade, Ontarians have gone from Liberal to NDP to hard-right Tory governments in successive elections. British Columbians routinely elect the left-leaning NDP provincially while swerving to the right to support Reform/Alliance federally. That’s Canada’s three largest provinces performing political pirouettes.

• It’s better to look marvellous than to say marvellous things. Ronald Reagan drove the United States hard to the

right on the strength of his charisma, winning the votes of millions of working-class Democrats who had never previously voted otherwise. His ideas weren’t much different from those of Barry Goldwater in the 1960s—but Reagan was the kind of sunny guy you felt good about, and Goldwater wasn’t. Bill Clinton, coming out of nowhere in the early 1990s, made George Bush look inarticulate and old. George W. Bush probably isn’t nearly as smart as AÍ Gore—but he’s a real guy while Gore isn’t, and that may make the difference. At home, René Lévesque made sovereignty credible and cool in Quebec. Pierre Trudeau, in 1968, was the most unusual and unlikely political candidate many Canadians had ever seen. And many Quebecers used to vote for Lévesque provincially and Trudeau federally: the popularity of each man mattered more than their conflicting ideas.

• Voters focus on the issues that affect them most directly. And why not? Political scientists and people in our business spend too much time talking amongst ourselves: we build images of earnest voters sitting at home, ticking off scorecards listing each candidate’s views on social and fiscal policy on a point-by-point basis. Dream on: just like special-interest groups, many average voters start by asking, “What’s in it for me?” The answer, in that case, is Day’s flat-tax proposal, which would cut the federal tax rate for most middleand upper-income earners. This, while the Libs are planning a left-leaning platform that would see them ramp up spending.

• Pre-election polls mean nothing. If they really amounted to anything, Kim Campbell would be prime minister today, Jean Charest would be premier of Quebec and Mike Harris wouldn’t have won a first term in Ontario, let alone a second. Politics doesn’t even exist on the radar screen of most people these days until about two weeks before an actual election, when they start thinking seriously about who they’ll vote for. That’s perfect for Day, who showed—in the face of tough questioning from Wendy Mesley on CBC’s The Magazine last week—that he can take a hit and come out looking relaxed and reassuring.

None of that means anything if Day can’t jump significant hurdles in months ahead. If he becomes leader, he’ll have to knit together a badly divided caucus, convince Manning to stay in a lesser role, function as a political leader rather than follower for the first time in his life, and overcome continuing doubts about his policies in Central and Eastern Canada— including, in particular, Ontario, where his wish to massively decentralize federal powers may become his real Achilles heel with voters who like the status quo. It’s early days, and only a fool would claim to know what lies ahead. Which never, of course, stops so very many of us from trying.