Campaign 2004

MARTINIZING THE MESSAGE

The Grits are in trouble, but Canadians still like the PM. Will that be enough to help the party, asks JOHN GEDDES.

June 7 2004
Campaign 2004

MARTINIZING THE MESSAGE

The Grits are in trouble, but Canadians still like the PM. Will that be enough to help the party, asks JOHN GEDDES.

June 7 2004

MARTINIZING THE MESSAGE

Campaign 2004

The Grits are in trouble, but Canadians still like the PM. Will that be enough to help the party, asks JOHN GEDDES.

THE UNVEILING of Paul Martin’s health plan was a strange sort of election event. No partisan crowd armed with thunder sticks to cheer him on. No balloons. Just a bunch of reporters in a windowless meeting room at Cobourg, Ont.’s new hospital, puzzling their way through columns of numbers in some dry documents. With their hopes of a fourth consecutive majority looking increasingly like a long shot, the Liberals might have been expected to put some sizzle into their campaign’s biggest policy release. Yet they went low-key all the way. Why? Maybe because this was exactly how the Prime Minister made his political reputation back in the 1990s: by putting out projections and targets—and then hitting them. With his back to the wall, he was going back to basics.

The party wants voters to remember the other Martinwho got things done

Rating Game

John Crosbie, 73, the entertainingly acerbic former Tory finance minister, said he is seriously considering running for the Conservatives in the Newfoundland riding of Avalon. Go for it, John. Politics ain’t been the same since you left.

With his party’s back against the wall, Liberal cabinet minister Pierre Pettigrew plays the ethnic card in Quebec, saying the Bloc Québécois considers “others” a threat to their identity. Gilles Duceppe counters that his party is inclusive, but sounds a strident separatist message. Enough already.

To the NDP’s Jack Layton, for looking good.

To the NDP’s Jack Layton, for not sounding so good. Saying the PM is responsible for killing homeless people is over the top.

Haunted by previous statements that Atlantic Canada has a culture of defeatism, Stephen Harper says he would allow the region to keep more oil and gas revenues. Feds would lose but provinces would win. Harper wins too, getting the endorsement of the Atlantic premiers-Tories all.

Alfonso Gagliano sues Paul Martin and his government for his dismissal over the sponsorship scandal, saying he was made a scapegoat. Apart from the entertainment value, look at it from the opposition’s perspective: the Liberals’ mess is still in the news.

The parties and the TV networks agree that the leaders’ debates will be held on June 14 and 15. Finally—the promise of real action.

Martin used the announcement to draw an explicit link to his glory days as finance minister, arguing that the public’s determination to lick the deficit a decade ago is matched today by a sense of urgency on the health system. “There is a huge national consensus,” he said, “that we have to put in place the reforms to be sure that it’s there for a generation to come.”

What he proposed is hardly visionary. Martin patiently mapped out $9 billion in new spending, with some of the same trusted advisers who once helped devise and sell his federal budgets in the room again to explain the fine points. The package aims to shorten waiting lists, modestly boost home care, and help out provinces with general health costs. It’s really a bargaining position he wants to take to the premiers for negotiations this summer, assuming he’s still prime minister after the June 28 vote. For now, though, those details may be less important than the way he presented them. He doesn’t expect voters to sort it all out—his point is to remind them he’s a politician who can. So when pressed to defend his plan’s credibility, Martin talked about the way he once balanced the books and hammered out a deal with the provinces to save the Canada Pension Plan.

POLLS show the Prime Minister is miles ahead of the other leaders in the ‘most capable’ category

Promises,Promises

LIBERALS

Paul Martin pledges an extra $9 billion over a decade for the health-care system, prompting Stephen Harper to asks if the Liberals just won “the mother of all lotteries.” Some premiers are also suspicious, wondering what strings might be attached-and whether this might be another attempt by Ottawa to move onto their turf.

CONSERVATIVES

Stephen Harper says a Tory government would give Canada lower taxes than the U.S. No, waitmake that the whole world. And he’d manage to do it all without compromising social policies. Yeah, right, counter the Liberals, who charge that Harper’s right-wing agenda would end up gutting the country’s programs.

NDP

Tax the rich. Jack Layton appeals to the party’s hard core with a plan to ramp up health and social spending by raising $45 billion from new levies on business, the wealthy, and inheritances. Jack Mintz, president of the C.D. Howe Institute, says, “I don’t think any government in their right mind would put in a package like that.”

BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS

A provincially based party that won’t form a government is mostly in the business of attacking, not promising. But playing off the Liberal sponsorship scandal, Gilles Duceppe and his BQ have still made a whopper of a pledge with their slogan: “A Clean Party for Quebec.” Sure hope there are no skeletons in the BQ’s closets.

The not-so-subtle subtext: remember me? No, not the me who fumbled his way through the sponsorship scandal—the old me, the guy who got stuff done. Eight out of 10 Canadians once approved of Martin as finance minister, and the Liberals desperately need voters to start thinking about him that way again. Polls show the party on the brink of losing its majority. Its brand has been tarnished by the sponsorship scandal, especially in Quebec, which now looks like a wasteland for them. And in make-or-break Ontario, the provincial Liberals’ tax-hiking, promise-shredding budget has sideswiped their federal cousins. Donna Dasko, senior vice-president of the polling firm Environics, says marketing Martin is key to the Liberals’ chances of beating back the Conservatives. “When you ask who’s the best person to be prime minister, he has a huge lead,” she says.

An Environics poll taken just before the campaign launch found 46 per cent judged Martin the “most capable” leader, compared to just 14 per cent for Conservative Stephen Harper and a mere six per cent for the NDP’s Jack Layton. But when Canadians are asked what party they’ll vote for, the race looks far tighter. Late last week, Ekos Research Associates put Liberal support at 38 per cent, the Conservatives at 30 per cent, and the NDP at 18 per cent. To claw their way back into the majority zone—up over 40 per cent—the Liberals need to convert Martin’s sturdier personal credibility into support for the wobbly party.

Every federal election runs on two levels. There are the leaders’ airborne tours, where headlines are made, spin is spun, and sound bites are tossed off. And then there are the earthbound local races, where no-names slog door to door, pamphlets tucked in mailboxes vie for attention with supermarket flyers, and tracking polls count for less than whether voters are smiling or scowling on the doorstep. In Cobourg last week, only hours after Martin’s caravan pulled out of town, volunteers for Liberal MP Paul Macklin congregated at a shopping plaza campaign office before heading out to canvass. The gust of excitement that comes with a prime minister’s visit had failed to even temporarily blow away their worries. While Macklin was upbeat, the prevailing view among his foot soldiers was that their party is headed for a minority—or worse. “We’re due,” said Martin Partridge, a local lawyer and veteran Liberal organizer, who rhymed off reasons for his glum outlook: “The uniting of the two right parties. The most visible scandal in memory. Three majority governments in a row, and a lot of voter fatigue.”

Macklin’s Northumberland-Quinte West riding is one of a band of hotly contested seats, running from the Quebec border, down Highway 401, then swinging up around Toronto to southwestern Ontario. The Liberals won 100 of Ontario’s 103 seats in the 2000 election. There are 106 ridings up for grabs in the province this time. The Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, drawing on various polls conducted in April and May, projected the Liberals would win 75 of them, the Conservatives 27, and the NDP four. And that’s before much of the backlash to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s budget, which imposed a health-care premium that reneged on his campaign promise last fall not to hike taxes. Distancing Martin from McGuinty, a former close ally, now ranks as a key federal Liberal campaign objective.

Harper’s Conservatives know they are better off running against the Liberals in general than Martin in particular. A senior Conservative strategist told Maclean’s that focus groups conducted by the party found that attacking the Prime Minister’s personal character tended not to go over well. As a result, Harper has eased off on the personal tough talk. In an interview just before the campaign began, he admitted that Martin’s image has held up better than Conservatives might have hoped. “What is true is that he’s not hurt as badly as his party,” Harper said. “But he has been hurt by his handling of the sponsorship scandal. It’s just not as bad as it should be.”

So the election outcome will likely be a matter of Martin pulling his party up, or the party’s baggage dragging him down. The problem may be that his most authentic political persona—the stolid problem-solver— doesn’t lend itself to fiery campaigning. While that down-to-business image is surely why so many Canadians view him as capable, it hasn’t been enough to stop a lot of them from turning against his party. The question is: does Martin have it in him to lift his game from competent to compelling— and win them back? fi1]