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Election Guide

Jean Chrétien has held his own, but this cannot be the campaign he was hoping for when he stood against a backdrop of turning maples on the grounds of Rideau Hall last month to announce his bid for a third mandate from the people.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 27, 2000

Election Guide

Jean Chrétien has held his own, but this cannot be the campaign he was hoping for when he stood against a backdrop of turning maples on the grounds of Rideau Hall last month to announce his bid for a third mandate from the people. "I enter this campaign taking nothing for granted," he said gravely that sunny day. "I enter it with great humility, but also with convictions and confidence." Four weeks later, the leaves have all fallen, the light is no longer so golden, and the Prime Minister has absorbed more than a campaign's worth of hard blows. He has been accused of caring more about pedophiles than children. He has been charged with abusing his office to funnel a government business loan into his riding. His hold on the loyalty of his own party - among MPs he has given two majorities and is in good shape to deliver another one on Nov. 27 - has been increasingly called into question.

Do not expect Stockwell Day, though, to spare a moment of sympathy for his adversary. Day waded into his first national election aiming to capitalize on the energy, youth and wit that had vaulted him over Preston Manning early last summer to grab the Canadian Alliance leadership. Instead, he has been forced onto the defensive over many of the same issues that undermined Manning as leader of the Alliance's predecessor, the Reform party. Day has had to fend off allegations that he has a hidden agenda to scrap universal health care. He has struggled to explain a policy that would force a national referendum on abortion - or any other issue - if an undetermined number of Canadians signed a petition. And, finally, he has had to explain that as a conservative Christian he believes there is at least as much evidence for creationism as there is for Darwin's theory of evolution.

Pity the undecided voter trying to peer through the thick haze of acrimony to get a clear view of the combatants. Chris Baker, vice-president of Environics Research Group, says the difficulty in sorting out the substance of the contest from its angry rhetoric may explain why there has been so little movement in popular opinion since the campaign began. Last week, an Environics poll put Liberal support at 46 per cent, almost unchanged from the week before the campaign began. Similarly, the Alliance stood at 23 per cent, a scant two points below where the party stood when the whole thing started. "Of the Liberals there's a perception of arrogance, and of the Alliance a perception of ignorance," said Bill Neville, head of University of Manitoba's political studies department. "Given those perceptions, it has been difficult for either side to make the case for itself."

There are, of course, more than two sides. In Quebec, where the election has its own distinct dynamic, the Bloc Québécois has pulled even with the Liberals at 43 per cent in the latest Environics poll, climbing five points in the province since early November, as the Liberals slipped by the same amount. But the national Conservative and NDP campaigns seem bogged down. Despite a bravura debate performance by Joe Clark, the Tories are mired at 10 per cent, while the New Democrats, at nine per cent, have failed to gain ground on Alexa McDonough's message that only the NDP can safeguard universal health care. Last week, Clark dropped all pretense of aiming to win, appealing instead for voters to choose him over Day to lead the opposition. "If Mr. Chrétien's party gets elected again, and they might," he pleaded, "who do you think would be better to hold them to account on the floor of the House of Commons?"

Still, the defining choice for many Canadians is between Chrétien and Day. And, perhaps surprisingly, behind the thick smoke of the negative campaign war, both have managed to cobble together substantive platforms. After starting off with a thin policy blueprint, blandly titled A Time for Change, the Alliance fleshed out its tax and spending prescriptions last week by releasing a full review of their costs by outside economists. As for the Liberals, their Red Book III platform pamphlet, while much less hefty than the versions released for the 1993 and 1997 elections, has to be considered in tandem with the much more detailed mini-budget released just before the election call by Finance Minister Paul Martin.

The two sides argue over bottom lines. But taking their claims at face value, here's what is being put in front of voters. The Liberals would ramp up federal spending from $119.7 billion next year to $129.6 billion in the third year of a new mandate. The Alliance would move from a slightly more modest $115.7 billion in spending next year to $123.2 billion three years after forming its first administration. On taxes, over the same period, the Liberals would allow the government's total revenues to rise from $175.2 billion to $187.2, while the Alliance would let the tax haul grow only from $174 billion to $176 billion. Taken together, the tax and spending proposals suggest broad directions. The Liberals propose to let spending and taxes creep up, but only in line with overall economic expansion. The Alliance proposes to restrict both in order to see the size of government decline as a share of a growing economy.

No surprises there - the Alliance wants leaner government, the Liberals like it at about its current heft. These preferences have policy implications more pointed than overall spending and taxation levels. Take the two parties' approaches to economic development. Chrétien spent much of the campaign touring factories supported by federal grants and loans, touting Liberal faith in government as "a force for good." Day vowed that an Alliance government would get out of the free market's way, cutting out all "corporate welfare." That would mean the end of regional development agencies, especially the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which now spends up to $350 million a year. The Alliance's alternative, according to its official briefing book for candidates: "Tax cuts for everyone, not subsidies to the friends of politicians."

There is not much doubt about whose friends the Alliance has in mind. Day is running not so much on his ideological preference for less government as on his specific distaste for the way Chrétien governs. "Anytime somebody accumulates that much power," Day said of Chrétien in one of his most explosive campaign speeches, "we know that it tends to have a corrupting influence on that individual." The Alliance has made much of the millions in federal loans and grants that have flowed into Chrétien's Quebec riding of Saint-Maurice. Chrétien admitted last week that he successfully lobbied the head of the federal Business Development Bank of Canada to lend money to the owner of Auberge Grand-Mre, a Shawinigan hotel of which Chrétien was once part-owner. Day responded by accusing the Prime Minister of "an abuse of power," and went so far as to call on the RCMP to investigate what, "according to the Criminal Code, would be an item of corruption" (Clark also said the Mounties should look into the matter). But the Alliance leader is apparently offended by more than Chrétien's dealings with small-time businessmen in his home town. Day slyly referred in one speech to the "power corporation" within Chrétien's office - a clear allusion to the Prime Minister's close links to Power Corp. The Montreal conglomerate is headed by André Desmarais, Chrétien's son-in-law, and its executive vice-president is John Rae, Chrétien's top campaign adviser.

Day's decision to take a shot at the Power Corp. connection reflects the wide gap between the Liberal and Alliance political cultures. Chrétien, for all his folksiness, has for decades moved in Canadian Establishment circles, from which he draws his loyal coterie of advisers. Day, despite a stint as Alberta's treasurer - a position of no small clout - remains a distrustful, at times disdainful, outsider. So are his closest confidants. In fact, Day grew up largely in Montreal and Ottawa, and attended Ashbury College, the tony private school in Ottawa's leafy Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood. But he got his taste for politics as a champion of private Christian schools in Bentley, Alta., in the early 1980s, before winning a provincial seat in 1986, and then emerging as a star in Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's Tory government.

Proud as Day is of those Alberta roots - both in the evangelical Christian community and the Klein cabinet - they have repeatedly put him on the defensive. First, the Liberals took aim at the Alberta government's controversial Bill 11, which permitted a greater role for private health-care companies in the province. "In Alberta," claimed a hard-hitting Liberal TV ad, "Stockwell Day helped impose a law that opens the door to U.S.-style private health care." Day exploded, demanding the ad be withdrawn. The Liberals kept it on the air. (The party did tinker with it to correct the suggestion that the ad's main message was in fact quoted from an article in The Globe and Mail; in reality, the text was written by the Liberal advertising team.) Perhaps even more problematic for Day was a CBC TV documentary, aired last week on The National, that explored his Christian conservatism, including his belief in creationism. Day argued that he should not have to explain tenets of his faith, but he did issue a statement confirming that he holds "there is scientific support for both creationism and evolution."

Day has spent too many of his campaign news conferences back on his heels, defending his policies and personal inclinations. But when he gets in front of a crowd - and he has been drawing big ones across Canada - he delivers speeches from the balls of his feet, making the best of his agile wit and flair for scorching oratory. Chrétien, by contrast, has not been mounting a vintage run on the hustings. On his better days, he can sometimes deliver the goods, drawing energy from partisan crowds. But too often, he seems unsure of what points to hit hardest. Is this a campaign about the Liberal record? Is it about the future? Is it about keeping Day at bay? Too many Canadians, including many Liberals, suspect it is really about Chrétien scoring a third consecutive majority. "Chrétien is gambling that he can fool enough people to sneak in his personal, petty little thing," Day told Maclean's. "Which is a three-peat."

Chrétien's top strategists insist this campaign could have been about much more - if only the haranguing would stop. But the charge that Day's team is solely to blame for the low tone was a hard sell last week. In a furious outburst at a Toronto Liberal rally, Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan slammed the Alliance as a haven for "Holocaust deniers, prominent bigots and racists." Caplan cited Doug Christie, a Victoria lawyer who has represented those who deny the Nazis killed six million Jews during the Second World War, as an Alliance supporter. In fact, Christie was barred from joining the Alliance. "This is a new low in the level of attack ads, personal attacks and scare tactics," Day fumed. "Jean Chrétien, call off your dogs." But the Prime Minister seemed to back Caplan rather than muzzle her. "When you are a party with a clear right-wing agenda," he said, "you end up with the support of that type."

If Chrétien was not in a mood to tone things down, it might be because he carries fresh wounds of his own. Day has taken a hard line late in the campaign trying to paint the Liberals as soft on criminals - sex offenders in particular. He has assailed Chrétien for failing to invoke the so-called notwithstanding clause to overturn a B.C. court decision that found that the federal law banning the possession of child pornography violated the right of free expression. (The federal government appealed the decision and is now waiting for a Supreme Court of Canada ruling.) "I'm glad to see tonight you're putting the rights of pedophiles over the rights of children," Day said in a vitriolic exchange with Chrétien on the issue during the English-language leaders' debate. And Day tried to capitalize on the arrest last week of Peter Whitmore, a convicted child molester who was caught with a 13-year-old boy in a Toronto hotel room after his release last month from jail. It was, he claimed, fresh evidence of a lax Liberal approach to criminal justice.

With the campaign ricocheting from accusations of anti-Semitism one day to charges of corruption the next, it's no wonder the public isn't warming up to either of the two main leaders. The polling firm Compas reports that outside the Alliance hotbeds of British Columbia and Alberta, voters rate Day as less truthful now than they did when the election was called. Chrétien's honesty rating has also slipped during the campaign. Both leaders were also rated in the survey as more arrogant than they were at the campaign's outset.

Such findings may be more worrisome for Day than for Chrétien. Conventional wisdom in Canadian politics is that incumbent leaders who start high in the polls must expect to slide during campaigns. Their challengers, though, are supposed to grow in stature as more voters get to know them. But Day appears to have succeeded only in solidifying his base - not broadening his appeal. "The quarter of the electorate that supports the Alliance is now rock solid - diamond solid," says Compas president Conrad Winn. "But everyone else is more suspicious."

Wary as many voters may be of Day, there's no sign that they are feeling renewed enthusiasm for Chrétien. The sheer immobility of the polling numbers amazes Environics' pollster Baker: "This is one of the weirdest elections I've ever seen." Chrétien, though, has seen just about everything before: this is his 12th run for federal office. He knows that if this campaign holds steady, he will get his majority on Nov. 27 - perhaps paving the way for a graceful resignation from office midway through a new mandate, as he hinted last week. Day can read the polls, too. For him, a holding pattern this week means being relegated to clinging to the western strongholds he was elected to push the Alliance beyond. It means no breakthrough - or not much of one - in Ontario. That sets the stage for a final week of Campaign 2000 that may have its surprises, but is likely to follow a predictable pattern. Day must run hard and loud. Chrétien will stay careful and quiet. Many voters may look on and wonder what it has all been about.

Maclean's November 27, 2000