COVER

WHY SO CRANKY?

JONATHON GATEHOUSE December 30 2002
COVER

WHY SO CRANKY?

JONATHON GATEHOUSE December 30 2002

WHY SO CRANKY?

The economy, the stock market, the terrorist threat. So much is looking better than last year. So why aren’t we celebrating?

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

COVER

THE YEAR-END POLL

BY ANY OBJECTIVE standard, Canadians have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season. The political unrest, natural disasters, warfare and terror that blight other nations are largely unknown here. Our economy is humming along. Interest rates remain at almost historic lows. Child poverty is finally falling. The CFL is healthy. We won hockey gold. No one has mentioned the constitution in years.

The question that comes to mind then is why are so many of us in such a lousy mood? Pessimistic. Anxious. Frustrated. Positively verklempt. The 19th annual Macleans yearend survey of public opinion offers a snapshot of a country that’s not at all happy about the way things are going. And a picture of an electorate that is getting awfully tired of governments that don’t listen to its complaints. “I’m almost ashamed to be a Canadian at this point,” says Neil Baker of Bright, Ont., one of1,400 respondents to the national telephone poll, conducted by the Strategic Counsel between Nov. 1 and 12. “Our governments—provincial and federalare out of control. Health care and education are big issues. There’s lots of waste. We’re not getting any leadership. The country is in a mess as far as politics goes.”

It’s a common sentiment. The percentage of Canadians who say they’re more optimistic about the future than they were a decade ago is at its lowest point ever in this year-end poll. But why? Unlike past years, when declining confidence was clearly tied to worries about recession or events like the Sept. 11 attacks, the underpinnings for our growing dissatisfaction seem more diverse and harder to explain. We’re feeling downright negative about the business community and openly questioning the morals and ethics of our corporate moguls after a year of watching Enron and WorldCom execu-

tives being led away in handcuffs. Still, despite the stock market plunge that accompanied the scandals, most of us say our personal financial situation has either stayed the same or improved. And only 29 per cent of Canadians are fearful that the bottom is about to drop out of our economy—about half the number last year.

Our worries that this country will become the target of a terrorist attack also appear to be diminishing as the distance between us and the collapse of the World Trade Center grows. But the aftershocks of that Sept. 11 are still evident in only slightly less support

WANDERING WORRIES

Percentages citing specific issues as top concern over the past decade

Health/education/ social services

Unemployment/

economy

Terrorism/Sept.ll/ foreign issues

Environment

Government/ gov’t deficit

National unity/ constitution

than last year for draconian measures against refugees and immigrants: 60 per cent would put refugee claimants arriving “without valid ID” on the next plane back to where they came from; 51 per cent favour locking up refugee claimants in “secure locations” until their cases are heard; 44 per cent would restrict our intake of Muslim immigrants.

We are blasé about the proposed next step in the American-led war on terror. Despite months of sabre-rattling by the Bush administration, Canadians remain unconvinced that Saddam Hussein poses a threat to world peace and needs to be removed.

Chrétien signed on to the Kyoto accord as Canadians grew impatient for his departure

Fifty-one per cent of those polled say there is insufficient justification for an invasion of Iraq. And even if the United Nations gives the go-ahead, fewer than three in 10 want to see Canada get actively involved in a military campaign. In fact, the looming prospect of war in the Middle East barely registers on our list of important issues of the day.

The hoary aphorism “all politics is local” has guided many an electoral career. And when it comes to the issues that concern

MIXED MESSAGE TO THE PM

Approve of Jean Chrétien’s performance in dealing with the threat of terrorism in

the past year 56%

Think Chrétien should step down as Prime Minister before his announced departure

date of February 2004

THE LEGACY AGENDA

Percentage agreeing these federal government spending priorities are very important: Improving the health-care

system 68

Alleviating child poverty 59

Upgrading the military 26

Improving living conditions for Aboriginal Canadians Upgrading services and infrastructure in major cities 17

Canadians, people are definitely putting the home front first. For the fourth year running, the No. 1 preoccupation in the nation is the frayed state of the health-care system—26 per cent cite medicare or hospital closures as the issues that concern them most. By comparison, the next highest response is the economy and jobs at 14 per cent. The third-ranking answer was Don’t know/no response—raising the distressing possibility that that one in 10 Canadians is unable to identify even a single issue facing the country. Foreign issues, terrorism, government spending and crime are all way down the list of priority policy areas for Canadians.

The dominance of health-care concerns isn’t that surprising given the recent run of studies, reports and inquiries that have attempted to diagnose the ails of medicare. And although most of us seem to agree that fixing the problem should be a government priority, opinion is still divided, and sometimes even contradictory, on just how that goal should be accomplished. Fifty-nine per cent of those surveyed say they would like to see Ottawa spend more on health, yet 70 per cent say the biggest concern right now is that the system wastes money and is poorly administered. Fifty-two per cent agree with

Roy Romanow’s recommendation that medicare be expanded to cover some prescription drugs and home-care services, yet almost exactly as many are unwilling to pay higher taxes to fund such initiatives.

Shannon Reid, a community college teacher and electrologist in New Waterford, N.S., says she still sees a lot of fat in the health-care system despite a decade of cuts and service reductions. “What bothers me is that somewhere along the line the money isn’t being managed properly,” she says. “In the hospitals around here, a lot of staff get paid for snow or sick days and they take them, whether they need to or not.” At the same time, Reid believes the Canadian public must take its share of the blame for the overflowing emergency rooms and doctors’ offices. “People I know, if their child has a runny nose, they’re rushing them to Emergency. Years ago, you just used to have some of Mom’s chicken soup and wait to get better,” she says. “The system is being taken for granted, and the government is wasting all this money on Band-Aids instead of getting to the root of the problem.”

Dr. John Millar, vice-president of research and population health at the Canadian Institute for Health Information—an at-arm’slength federal organization that provides Ottawa and the provinces with data on how the system is working—says people are right in thinking that money isn’t the only answer to the problem. Much can be done to reform health care, he says. “It’s not so much fat in the system as a matter of inappropriate usage, and the delivery of inappropriate services.” He cites problems like the chronic over-prescription of antibiotics, or a recent study in British Columbia that found that 25 per cent of patients receiving cataract surgery didn’t really need it.

Millar says he sees “elements of a consensus” building across Canada on how to improve the system—better public health programs, more doctors and nurses, increased access to home care. But he warns that the window of opportunity to fix medicare is closing. “All the polls show that the public is totally fed up with the back and forth between the provinces and Ottawa. People want results.”

Part of the challenge of governing has always been trying to strike a balance between priorities and expectations. The public may wish for lower taxes but they also want someone to pick up their garbage, to make sure

the airplanes are safe, and to teach their children. The growing problem in Canada appears to be a disconnect between what people want and what government is willing, or able, to deliver. For example, last October’s Speech from the Throne floated an ambitious raft of policy initiatives to cap Jean Chretien’s final months in office—ratification of the Kyoto accord, new programs to help cities and ease child poverty, a full-scale effort to improve the living conditions of Aboriginal Canadians.

For the most part, the public thinks these are worthy goals—although only 5 2 per cent of respondents rate helping natives as important and almost two-thirds would add a beefed-up military to Chretien’s list of priorities. But when it comes down to the area where people most want to see Ottawa ac-

tually increase its spending, the military and our big cities barely rank. Again and again, it seems, voters are delivering the message that health care is their overriding concern.

John Duffy, a Toronto-based author, lobbyist and political strategist, sees a “near crisis of legitimacy” in the political system. “A lot of people have stopped believing that government is going to produce changes in the areas they care about,” he says. “The frustration is mounting.” It’s a deep-seated cynicism that appears to be spreading. People, especially the young, are tuning out of all facets of public life. The news media see it in declining numbers of viewers and readers. Pollsters encounter it in the increasing difficulty they have getting people to answer their questions—the overall response rate for this survey was 28 per cent, about

DIMINISHING FEARS

Percentage considering the likelihood of Canada becoming a terrorist target as...

Likely 2001 58

_2002 52

Not likely

CRACKS IN A HARD LINE

Percentage in support of...

Sending anyone who claims refugee status without valid ID back to where they arrived

from 2001 65

2002

Keeping all refugee claimants in secure locations with no contact with Canadian society until their cases have been heard

2001 59

2002

Restricting the number of immigrants from Muslim countries

THE MONEY’S THERE, USE IT WISELY

Problems exits in the health-care system because it is badly managed and

wastes

Medicare should pay for almost all of an individual’s health-care needs

Expand medicare to cover drugs

and home care

‘NO’ TO HIGHER TAX AND DEFICITS

Percentage saying money for new government initiatives should come from...

Reducing spending on

other priorities_57

The budgetary surplus 19

Increased income taxes 8

Budgeting to include a deficit

THE ALBERTA WAY

Percentage saying... Canada’s top issue is health/education/ social services

Rest of Alberta Canada

20 40

Canada’s top issue is the environment

Air quality is the greatest environmental concern

The Kyoto accord is the greatest environmental concern

There is enough evidence to conclude there is global warming

Human actions are leading to a build-up of greenhouse gases causing global warming

The Kyoto accord would have a negative effect on the economy

The Kyoto accord would have a positive effect on the environment

Canada should ratify the Kyoto accord even if the U.S. doesn’t

The federal government should negotiate with the provinces before ratifying Kyoto

25

13 23

15 2

48 62

48 69

68 39

52 72

32 69

86 68

Medicare should pay for

almost all of an individual’s

health-care needs 49 61

Canadians and Americans

are the same 50 41

Jean Chrétien should step down

as Prime Minister before

his planned departure date

of February 2004 69 59

The country will want to stay

with the Liberal Party in the

next federal election 41 51

Gay marriages should be

legally recognized 41 50

Gay couples should be

allowed to adopt children 38 50

standard for the industry, meaning that it took 5,000 calls to find the 1,400 respondents.

Duffy says you have to go back to the dark days of the late-1970s to find a comparable crisis of public faith, although the problems facing Canada then—the threat of nuclear war and economic stagnation—were arguably much bigger than those facing us now. The message he delivers to his clients and the people he advises for free, like Paul Martin, is that talk is no longer enough. Vision is nice, says Duffy, but what Canadians really want “is basic—focus on meeting the public expectations. I can’t stress it enough. Actually meet them.”

But what happens when public expectations differ from region to region? Take the environment for an example. Overall, it isn’t a pressing concern for Canadians—just three per cent say Kyoto is the biggest issue facing the country. Although most of us believe the climate is getting warmer and that it’s our own fault, we’re not particularly alarmed, nor are we enthused about the idea of paying more for our cars or manufactured goods to help finance efforts to reduce the harm. It’s sobering news for those who are concerned about the precarious state of our natural world. “We’ve got a very tough row to hoe in a very competitive society where there are lots of issues before the government and the public,” says John Bennett, director of atmosphere and energy for the Sierra Club of Canada. “People just assume that elected officials are taking care of the environment and don’t pay a lot of attention until something happens in their own neighbourhood.”

But efforts to reduce greenhouse gases through Kyoto are a mammoth preoccupation in one part of the country—Alberta, where the issue outpaces even health care (21 per cent versus 12 per cent). People in that province are skeptical about the science behind the accord and deeply worried about the economic fallout from efforts to limit greenhouse gases. Dave Friesen, herd manager for a cattle ranching operation in High Level, Alta., doesn’t mince words when asked what’s happening to the climate. “I’ve read books that say there used to be palm trees in northern Alberta millions of years ago, so it must have warmed up like this before. What caused it then?” asks Friesen. “Besides, I don’t worry too much. I’m 60 and I figure I’ll be in the ground in another 10 years or so, and since it’s colder than a bas-

tard up here, I wouldn’t mind the change.”

Now for a moment imagine you are Paul Martin and poised to become prime minister. Unlike most Liberals, you enjoy considerable popularity in Alberta. So there is an issue like Kyoto where most of the country supports something (even if it’s not high on their priority list) and one province hates it with a passion. How do you square that with the new political reality where voters are looking for politicians who will listen to their concerns? The former finance minister’s solution was to abstain from the ratification vote after making several seemingly contradictory statements on the issue. See also Anne McLellan’s shaky efforts to distance herself from the gun-registry debacle.

Now, if you are from the West, you’re probably not going to like this next sentence. But Alberta is the new Quebec, when it comes to this poll at least. Traditionally, residents of la belle province have stood apart from the rest of the country on issues of social policy, U.S.-Canada relations, national unity and practically everything else. In the past couple of years, however, with ardour for the sovereignist movement cooling and in the wake of Sept. 11, Quebec and the rest of Canada have seemed remarkably in sync. Now it’s Albertans who are two-stepping to a different beat. And it’s not just on matters that could affect the oil and gas industry. Ask the rest of the country if Americans and Canadians are essentially the same and 41 per cent agree. Ask Albertans and the number rises to 50 per cent. People in Alberta are less likely than the national average to agree with the idea of legal recognition for gay marriage, or adoption rights for gay couples. They are significantly more eager to see Jean Chrétien step down before his announced February 2004 departure date, and more optimistic that somebody other than the Liberals will be running the show after the next election.

Roger Gibbins, president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think tank, says the gap between Albertans and the rest of the country is more manufactured than real. Honest differences of opinion seem to get amplified because of the poor state of relations between the provincial and federal governments. “Alberta has become a shorthand for a set of values,” says Gibbins, noting that the province is not that out of step with B.C. or Saskatchewan on most issues. As an example, he cites re-

SEX AND THE SINGLE CANADIAN

Percentage saying they first had sex before

the age of 20 Most likely Quebecers

Men 63

Least likely

Saskatchewanians and Manitobans 45

Ontarians and women 51

Saying they were unmarried at the time Most likely

Quebecers and men 82

Least likely

Saskatchewanians and Manitobans 65 Women 66

Describing themselves as sexually active Most likely Quebecers Men

Newfoundlanders Least likely Women

Ontarians 54

British Columbians, Saskatchewanians and Manitobans

cent comments by Allan Rock, blaming Ralph Klein, and by extension his constituents, for the ballooning cost of the federal gun registry. “A national issue like that doesn’t tend to break down along provincial lines, but that’s what people are being told.” When Albertans are constantly being told how different they are, it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Gibbins.

To be fair, there are other splits in this country beyond the East-West one that we spend so much of our time dissecting. Socially contentious issues often break down along urban-rural lines. In this poll, for example, support for gay marriage and gay adoption rights was higher in towns and cities (51 per cent in favour versus 43 and 42 per cent against, respectively).

Finally, the answer to the question that has plagued 1,400 people across the country for the last six weeks is, yes Maclean’s really

does want to know about your sex life. First of all, it should be pointed out that many of you are what is politely known as “unreliable narrators.” Only three per cent of respondents would admit that they or their partner had ever used Viagra. But according to IMS Health, a company that tracks the sale of pharmaceuticals across Canada, there have been more than three million Viagra prescriptions filled since the drug was approved for domestic sale in March 1999. There are approximately 31 million Canadians; just under 50 per cent of them are men. You do the math. Keeping that discrepancy in mind, 42 per cent say they first had sexual intercourse between the ages of 16 and 19 (though people in Saskatchewan and Manitoba seem to have had more control over their hormones, generally holding out longer). Seventy-four per cent say they were single when they lost their virginity.

The real shocker, however, comes in the crucial category of frequency. Throughout the history of our year-end poll, Newfoundlanders, perhaps attesting to the aphrodisiac qualities of Lamb’s Palm Breeze rum and Diet Pepsi, have reported themselves to be the most active lovers in Confederation. But in a stunning reversal, it is now Quebecers who are Masters of the Mattresses, with a total 76 per cent of respondents in that province claiming they have an active sex life (well ahead of Newfoundland’s 66 per cent). Josey Vogels, a Montrealer who writes the sex advice column My Messy Bedroom and hosts a television show of the same name, says she isn’t surprised that Quebecers have risen to the challenge. “I definitely think there is more of a sexual vibe in Montreal than, say, Toronto,” she says. “There is a pride in having a sort of European attitude about the body and life in general. People here work to live, not live to work.”

For their part, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are professing shock and amazement at their collective loss of mojo. “Frequency isn’t the issue, it’s the quality of the experience,” Seamus O’Regan, host of CTV’s Canada AM and a St.John’s homeboy, says defensively. But true to the can-do spirit that characterizes the Rock, there is already talk of mounting a comeback. “We’ll embrace the project and regain our rightful crown,” says O’Regan. “And I, for one, am ready to go back and do my part.” 1?!

jgatehouse@macleans.ca