Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Might the Conservatives Stumble?

According to the latest polls, the Conservatives have taken the lead among decided voters in Canada. With just under three weeks left in the election campaign, this is exceedingly bad news for the governing Liberals. But to understand how amazing a turnaround this is, we need to go back a few months.

When Paul Martin took over the leadership of the Liberal Party on December 12, 2003, all the polls suggested that, were he to call an election, his Liberals would win an overwhelming majority. Estimates ranged from 210 to 250 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. Today, all that has changed. The most recent polls suggest the Liberals will have trouble garnering even 110 seats, while the Conservatives seem daily to increase their lead over the crumbling Liberals.

And not only do things look rough for the Liberals right now, but when it comes to politics, trends count. Once a party starts on either a downhill or uphill swing, it’s extremely difficult to reverse that trend. Over the past few weeks the trend for the Liberals has been decidedly negative. The party just keeps falling in the polls. By contrast, the Conservatives are on the upswing, especially in Ontario where they now lead the Liberals by ten percentage points in the most recent poll.

But is it possible for the Conservatives to stumble? The simple answer would be yes, but I think it’s rather unlikely. To see why, we have to look at what’s brought the Liberals to where they are. First came the sponsorship scandal which implicated the Liberal government and its friends in a boondoggle that saw federal government funds earmarked for promoting Canada during the latest Quebec referendum flow into the coffers of Montreal ad agencies who did little or no work.

The first reaction to this came, not surprisingly, from Quebec itself. The Liberals, after three elections trailing the Bloc Quebecois, were looking set to win big in the province. The sponsorship scandal immediately changed all that. Combined with a rather unpopular provincial Liberal government in Quebec City, the scandal saw Quebecers turn on the federal Liberals along with native son Paul Martin. As the campaign continues, it appears that the Liberals remain mired in unpopularity in the province.

In the rest of Canada, except for Atlantic Canada, the reaction was slower but cumulative: the Liberals were increasingly seen as a party of corruption. To Albertans, most particularly, it was more of the same from the Liberals. But this perception alone wasn’t enough to do in the Liberals. In Ontario and in British Columbia, something more happened. In these provinces, provincial Liberal governments, just like that in Quebec, were becoming suddenly unpopular. In BC, the provincial New Democrats, reduced to just two seats in the last provincial election, now lead the Liberals in the polls. But it’s in Ontario where the backlash seems most marked and where the Conservatives are the biggest beneficiaries. In the provincial Liberals’ first budget, the government in Toronto made some hard choices. Among them were an increase in taxes and health care premiums, despite the fact that these actions explicitly broke their election campaign promises from the fall of 2003. And it seems that this has put Ontario voters in a foul mood, causing them to vent their anger on the federal Liberals.

Thus, it seems that it’s a combination of the sponsorship scandal, along with highly unpopular Liberal governments in Quebec, BC and Ontario that are dooming the federal Liberals. But the question remains, can the Liberals recover and can they turn the tide against the Conservatives? Considering the causes of the Liberal decline, it seems unlikely, but the Liberals are going to give it a darn good try. Unfortunately for them, their attacks are falling on deaf ears precisely because the things they’re going after the Conservatives on are the very things they’re mistrusted on.

Broadly, the attacks that are now being directed against the Conservatives fall under two categories: fiscal and social. On the fiscal front, the Liberals are claiming that the Conservatives will cut taxes, resulting in deficits and cuts to social programs like health care. The problem is, these claims only feed the anger of the voters in BC and Ontario. In BC, it’s the Liberals who’ve cut social spending, while in Ontario, the provincial Liberals are the ones who are increasing taxes and health care premiums. The electorate, it seems, has little patience for Liberal attacks on Conservatives when the Liberals they know appear as the culprits.

On the social front, the problem for the Liberals is that they seem to believe their own rhetoric and that of the Canadian media. The Liberals are saying the Conservatives will roll back access to abortion, will roll back gay rights and will destroy Canada’s dedication to social justice. The Liberals somehow have come to believe that these issues are part and parcel of Canadian values. But this is a grave mistake. In fact, there are many Canadians who are not particularly moved by these issues, contrary to what the Canadian media may believe. And we have to remember that, in the Canadian system of first-past-the-post, a party can win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons with substantially less than 50% of the vote. After all, the Liberals won a majority in 1997 with just 38% of the vote.

My point then is simple. On fiscal matters, the Liberals have too much baggage at the provincial level to be credible against the Conservatives, especially in Ontario. And, on social matters, there are a great number of Canadians who simply aren’t moved by the accusations of “extremism” leveled by the Liberals against the Conservatives. This isn’t to say that the Conservatives might not slip on these issues and start losing support, but this fact certainly isn’t lost on the Conservative planners. They know they simply cannot indulge extremism, even though it exists in the party. Moreover, they know that, at this point, the most likely scenario is a Conservative minority which will mean much of their social legislation would never pass the House of Commons.

This week, along with the leaders’ debates next week will test whether Stephen Harper can convince Canadians on these points. Thus far, he seems to be succeeding. And unless something remarkable happens, I suspect that recent trends – the Liberals falling and the Conservatives rising – will continue.

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