This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 26, 1997
Elections '97: The Platforms
Among political strategists, it is sometimes known as "the barbecue factor": the manner in which a once-hot candidate ends up cooked on election day. The principal example, one that many of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's strategists recall with a shudder, is former Ontario Liberal leader Lyn McLeod. Less than a month before the province's June, 1995, election, she entered a televised leaders' debate holding a 13-point lead over her nearest opposition. Media coverage immediately after the debate suggested that she had performed reasonably well. But voters thought otherwise: the Liberals' internal polls showed that she plummeted immediately, to the point where she trailed Conservative Leader Mike Harris by 17 points among those respondents who had watched the debate. The following weekend was the Victoria Day holiday, and voters, at barbecues and other social gatherings, peered at public polls that showed that Harris had won - and discussed the issue among themselves. Harris shot up further - and on election day, several weeks later, he won a stunning victory.
That now-legendary reversal haunts the Liberals as polls in the wake of last week's debates show their support slipping - with both Reform and the Conservatives on the rise. Worse, a poll by Environics Research Group Ltd. indicated that respondents who watched the debates perceived that Tory Leader Jean Charest was the best performer - although only one in 10 respondents said that the debates changed their votes. The Liberals are not panicking: despite their drop, they are so far ahead of their rivals that they remain on track towards a comfortable majority. But the polls are red flags that show danger ahead - Charest is nipping at the Liberals' heels in the East, Reform is crowding them in the West. And their safety zone - that vital margin between a majority and a minority government - has diminished. "It is now a new campaign," declared an upbeat Charest after the debates as he hammered away at Chrétien in campaign stops in the Atlantic provinces and Ontario.
The polls appeared to back up his assertion. Environics said 40 per cent of decided voters opted for the Liberals (down from 47 per cent in March), compared with 25 per cent for the Tories, 18 per cent for Reform and nine per cent for the New Democrats. The Bloc Québécois plummeted to 27 per cent from 44 per cent in Quebec. Another poll by The Strategic Counsel reflected most of those trends: 40 per cent for the Liberals among decided voters, 23 per cent for the Tories, 16 per cent for Reform, 10 per cent for the NDP. (In The Strategic Counsel poll, however, the BQ remained strong in Quebec with 41 per cent of decided voters.) Collectively, the surveys indicate that the Liberals remain on track to win a second majority - but have lost the invincible aura they carried as they headed into the televised debates last week.
In the aftermath - the French-language debate was cut short because of the dramatic illness of moderator Claire Lamarche - other leaders tried to capitalize on the momentum generated by the debates. Reform Leader Preston Manning, who used the debates to suggest that both Charest and Chrétien are too soft on Quebec nationalists, moved to shore up his once-flagging support in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan with tough stands on crime and the question of Quebec sovereignty. Charest, buoyed by his renewed popularity, moved to increase interest in Quebec and Ontario.
But despite all that, as voters fired up their barbecues, hopes for a replay of history seemed likely to succumb to a harsh dose of reality: the Liberals remain well ahead. Those findings come at roughly the halfway point of a lacklustre - and confusing - campaign. All five of the major parties - the Liberals, Tories, Reform, NDP and Bloc Québécois - agree that taxes, job creation, crime, national unity and the future of health care are top priorities. But their widely divergent approaches to those issues have left voters with an often-bewildering array of policy planks to consider. And although this is a Canada-wide election, the choice of parties varies according to region. Only the Liberals have a full-fledged presence in all areas of the country. The BQ exists only in Quebec, while Reform's real campaign is in Ontario and the western provinces. Reform, after an inauspicious beginning, is regaining strength in the West, particularly in Saskatchewan where it holds four of the 14 seats - and where it was running a distant third to the Liberals and NDP as recently as two months ago. "A week ago, I could smell Reform but couldn't see them," says a senior Liberal organizer in the province. "Now, I can see the whites of their eyes - they're sitting at the gates."
The NDP's hopes lie in isolated pockets of support in Nova Scotia (the home of leader Alexa McDonough), Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia. The Tories, despite their claim of being a national party, have virtually disappeared west of Manitoba. Their strongest support is in Atlantic Canada: initially, they hoped to take at least half of the 32 available seats, but now, party strategists privately acknowledge that seems unlikely. And despite Charest's bounce in the polls, it remains unclear whether that will translate into more seats other than his own in Quebec.
In that province, the race has become very interesting. The Environics poll showed the Tories in the lead with 36 per cent of the decided vote, compared with 32 per cent for the Liberals and 27 for the Bloc. Outside Quebec, one of the key issues is how to ensure that the BQ does not return as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. That, strategists from all parties agree, is a concern that frequently shows up in door-to-door campaigning. In the past, says veteran Tory strategist John Laschinger, "English Canada has very seldom been able to strategically vote. But I think the Bloc really gives them a reason." As a result, party insiders say many voters are waiting to see who pulls ahead - Reform or the Tories - before deciding who to support in the battle against the Bloc.
Against that bemusing backdrop, the parties are jostling to make their voices heard on specific issues. With that in mind, Maclean's offers a summary of their stances on five major issues:
Everyone agrees that the present 9.6-per-cent unemployment rate - with almost 1.5 million people unemployed - is unacceptable. But the parties vehemently differ over solutions. The Liberals, reflecting Chrétien's cautious style, say there is "no single or simple way" to produce "good" jobs. But they note that the number of new jobs is steadily rising - 94,000 in March and April alone - and attribute that to a complex chain reaction: by lowering the deficit, they say, the government restored investor confidence, which allowed it to lower interest rates.
That, in turn, put more money in Canadians' pockets. Now, the Liberals say, Canadians are spending that money - which will eventually prompt more companies to hire more workers. The Liberals have also targeted strategic areas for investment: apprenticeship programs for youth; Chrétien's Team Canada missions to sell services and goods abroad; the new $800-million Canada Foundation for Innovation, which supports university and hospital research; and Ottawa's $2.4-billion infrastructure program.
But critics point to the low unemployment rate in the United States - 4.9 per cent - as proof that the Liberals' proposed solutions are insufficient. Both the Tories and Reform would rely on tax breaks and cuts in Employment Insurance premiums to stimulate consumer spending and create jobs. As well, the Tories would reduce the small-business tax rate to eight per cent from 12 per cent. And they would prod the provinces to reduce interprovincial trade barriers, invoking, if necessary, Ottawa's constitutional powers over trade and commerce to enforce change. Reform, meanwhile, would pour more money into research and development, urge the provinces to eliminate internal trade barriers and seek freer international trade. It claims it would balance the budget by March 31, 1999 - and then provide $12 billion in tax relief.
The solutions proposed by the Bloc and the NDP are markedly different from the other three parties. The BQ would abolish almost $3 billion in tax breaks and credits - and use the savings to encourage small- and medium-sized businesses to create jobs. It would lower Employment Insurance premiums. And it would allow unemployed people to withdraw up to $25,000 from their registered retirement savings plans to create their own jobs. The New Democrats promise to lower the unemployment rate to 5.4 per cent in the year 2001 through the creation of almost two million jobs. Many of those would come as a result of investing in highways, modernizing the rail system for transporting grain, pouring money into community economic development - and increasing federal program spending by a staggering $18.8 billion per year.
TAXES AND DEBT
The centrepiece of the Liberal campaign is the party's impressive progress against the deficit: it has plummeted from $42 billion when they took office to a projected $9 billion in 1998-1999 - when Ottawa will no longer have to borrow any new money. Now, the Liberals depict themselves as prudent managers who will not promise detailed tax cuts until the deficit is eliminated - probably at the turn of the century. Future surpluses will be divided: half will be used to "improve our programs," while the other half will be split, in unspecified proportions, between tax cuts and the reduction of the country's $610-billion debt.
Reform and the Tories have more immediate and specific plans for tax cuts. The Tories would cut EI premiums from $2.90 per $100 of eligible employee income to $2.20 on Jan.1, 1998. They would lower personal income taxes by 10 per cent. They would make spending cuts of $6.6 billion to pay for that tax relief. But those plans also include a potentially enormous risk. Interest payments on the national debt continue to rise - hitting $46 billion in 1997-1998 - because the debt itself is still increasing. If there is an economic downturn, or if interest rates rise rapidly, the Tories' immediate tax cut could become a huge burden - if only because the party does not plan to balance the budget until 2000.
The Reform party would delay tax cuts until the budget is balanced - by March 31, 1999. Then it would provide $12 billion in tax relief: increasing the basic personal exemption from $6,456 to $7,900, eliminating federal income surtaxes, raising the child care deduction, and cutting EI premiums for employers. It would fund those breaks by slashing program spending from $106 billion in 1997-1998 to $94 billion at the end of its first mandate.
Both the Bloc and the NDP plan more spending - and both claim that they can still balance the budget around the turn of the century. The Bloc says that the Liberals are ahead of their deficit targets by $8 billion - and that it would use that money, coupled with savings from spending cuts, to decrease EI premiums and increase the child tax credit. The NDP wants to raise an extra $12 billion in 1998-1999 through additional taxes on tobacco, inheritances of more than $1 million, capital gains, corporations and incomes over $100,000.
The future of the federation is treacherous turf for every party, although some are more forthright about their dilemma. The BQ wants Quebec sovereignty - as soon as possible. The Reform party is equally blunt: if Quebecers endorse independence, future negotiations will be about such hard-edged issues as dividing the national debt, revoking Quebecers' rights to Canadian citizenship, establishing Canada's right to unhindered transportation across seceding territory and the "right of Canadians within a seceding province to remain part of Canada." But before a referendum, a Reform government would shuffle powers within the federation. Some of that devolution would be certain to please Quebec: for example, provinces would assume exclusive jurisdiction over the crucial areas of language and culture, social services and employment training.
The other three parties take a more soothing, low-key approach. If the provinces agreed, both the Liberals and the Conservatives would amend the Constitution to recognize Quebec as a distinct society. The Liberals would change the Constitution to ensure that any amendment that affects a region must be agreed to by that region. The Liberals also insist that they can strengthen the federation through non-constitutional methods, citing recent agreements to transfer manpower training funds to such provinces as Quebec and New Brunswick. Finally, as part of their so-called Plan B - the more hard-line stance towards Quebec - the Liberals have asked the Supreme Court to rule whether that province has the right to secede, and if so under what conditions.
The Tories oppose Plan B, arguing, in effect, that by allowing for the possibility of Quebec secession the Liberals make it seem more plausible. The Tories say they would "rebalance the federation" to devolve more powers: one such step would be to give provinces the right to raise their own tax dollars for health and postsecondary education - instead of relying on Ottawa's transfers. Instead, Ottawa and the provinces would sign a so-called Canadian Covenant to establish national standards for those programs.
The New Democrats dodge the phrase "distinct society." They note that "Quebec is different from other provinces" - and that the difference should be recognized in the Constitution "in a manner that fosters the unity of the country." They say that spending cutbacks, the dismantlement of national institutions such as medicare and increasing economic inequality erode the common values that united Canada.
The Reform party has tapped Canadians' unease about crime, tugging the issue into the campaign spotlight. The party would enact a victims' bill of rights, including the right to be informed of the offender's status from arrest through parole. It would replace the Young Offenders Act with measures to ensure that serious offenders who are 14 years of age and over - and all offenders who are 16 and over - are tried in adult court (the act now stipulates that anyone who is 16 years of age or older and who is charged with a violent crime must be tried in adult court unless they can prove that society will be better served by keeping them in youth court). Reform would also repeal the Liberals' law that requires the registration of all shotguns and rifles, increase penalties for the use of firearms in crime, and hold a national referendum on capital punishment.
Following Reform's lead, the Tories would introduce a victims' bill of rights, repeal gun-control legislation, increase penalties for the criminal use of firearms, and lower the age of application of the Young Offenders Act from 12 to 10. In contrast, the Liberal program is largely a recitation of past achievements: its 1995 gun-control legislation, harsher sentences for those who commit crimes of hate, longer sentences for young offenders who commit murder, and provisions to transfer young offenders charged with violent crimes, under some circumstances, to adult court.
The NDP does not talk about gun control in its platform. It promises to be "tough on the causes of crime" - child poverty, unemployment, racism, poor education and health care. And it would impose tougher sentences on white-collar criminals and those who commit gang-related crimes. The BQ also ignores gun control - but it urges strong measures to control biker gangs and money laundering. Both issues have been in the headlines in Quebec: more than 40 people have died in the past two years as rival gangs feud over control of the illegal drug trade.
Health care is everybody's favorite child: parties are tripping over each other in their promises of funding. In 1997-1998, Ottawa will transfer $25.1 billion to the provinces for health, postsecondary education and welfare - although the provinces are free to spend that money as they please. That transfer is composed of $12.5 billion in cash and $12.6 billion in tax points, which is money that Ottawa used to collect through its income taxes but which the provinces now collect for themselves through provincial taxes.
The Liberals have cancelled $5.4 billion in their own planned cuts to the cash portion of the transfer over the next four years - while claiming that they have strengthened health care. The Tories would also stop those planned cuts. Then they would convert that amount into tax points - and transfer those points to the provinces. They would rely on their so-called Canadian Covenant to ensure that the provinces do not diminish health or educational standards.
Reform plays political games with the figures. First, it proclaims its desire to cut $3.5 billion from the transfer - because it wants to end Ottawa's role in welfare funding. Then, it proudly announces an additional contribution of $4 billion for health and education. That translates into an additional $500 million that provinces can use for any purpose anyway. The BQ would restore $4.5 billion from previous cuts. And the NDP would bump up the cash portion of the transfer to $15 billion per year, institute a national prescription drug plan and expand medicare to cover home care.
Those sharp divisions in policy surfaced repeatedly in both the French- and English-language debates. The two showdowns also appeared to be something of a release for the combative Chrétien, who until recently had endured daily attacks from the four other party leaders in uncomfortable silence. Early in the campaign, Liberal handlers limited his direct meetings with Canadians and forced him to stick to carefully prepared texts; they feared that the Prime Minister would look like a bully by attacking any of the smaller parties too spontaneously and harshly. In fact, one sure sign of Charest's rise in public esteem was that Chrétien went out of his way to attack him in the wake of the debates.
As well, the debates did much to establish specific images of each leader in the eyes of Canadians who do not normally pay much attention to politics. Paradoxically, observers said that each of the leaders made at least small gains. Charest dominated the debates, and his stirring commitment to pass on to his children the united Canada he had inherited from his parents was the most memorable moment of the English debate. Chrétien - noticeably more at ease in the French debate - had the best line of that encounter when he noted Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe's fondness for blaming all of Quebec's ills on Ottawa - and then said he was surprised that Duceppe had not done so again when, in a widely publicized incident several weeks earlier, the Bloc's media bus got lost en route to an event. Manning, meanwhile, took effective potshots at both Quebec separatists and Chrétien - telling the Prime Minister that "you almost blew it, sir" in the October, 1995, sovereignty referendum. McDonough won plaudits for her valiant efforts in French, and the humorless Duceppe - whose appearance in English was disastrous - did a more competent job in the second debate. "Perhaps," joked Jean-Marc Léger, president of the Montreal-based polling company Groupe Léger & Léger, "it was all a plot: he was so terrible in English that anything after that was better by comparison."
Still, for most people, the enduring image of the French-language debate had little to do with the five leaders. At the start of the key section on national unity, moderator Claire Lamarche suddenly collapsed on the floor because of a severe drop in her blood pressure. Lamarche, a former teacher and talk-show host on the private TVA network, has undergone treatment for the problem for the past 15 years, the network later said. She had been hospitalized for fainting twice before, but the network said she had been in "great shape" in recent months. She was released from hospital the next day, and after prolonged haggling between representatives of the parties and French-language networks, the final section of the debate was scheduled to be held last weekend.
Even that unexpected drama, some observers said, carried its own lessons for the electorate. "I watched that woman collapse, and I waited for one of the party leaders to come to her side," said pollster Michael Adams of Environics Research Group. "They all seemed frozen in place for the longest time." After a seemingly interminable delay, the Bloc's Duceppe was first to her side - and eventually, a doctor in the studio provided aid. But the politicians' collective delay in reacting, said Adams, "spoke more eloquently to me than anything else about their inability to respond in a direct, human way to the people they say they want to serve." Fairly or not, that image summons up the reservations many people feel about their would-be leaders and their lack of clear answers in hard and painful times.
Maclean's May 26, 1997