Plot thickens in Canadian politics : great poll for Liberals, but will they fall in October anyway?

Sep 20th, 2005 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

A new Leger marketing survey of Canadian federal party standings has shown the first signs of real movement in the complex mind of the cross-Canada democratic electorate since the start of the summer that is just ending.

Using an Ipsos-Reid poll from less than a month ago as the benchmark, the Liberals are up four points, and the Conservatives are down four points. The Bloc Quebecois is up two points, and the New Democrats are down two points. (And the big picture is as simple as that.)

What is behind the change – with less than a week before Canada’s fractious 38th Parliament returns to Ottawa? Who really knows? But Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin did seem to be putting on a not- bad TV act as a stand-up Canadian leader in the global village, over the September 6-11 period when the Leger survey was taken.

Meanwhile, some among Stephen Harper’s opposition Conservatives still think that the fall revival of the Gomery inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal can push the universe their way again. The Leger survey has also reported that “53 per cent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with Martin’s government, compared with 40 per cent who were satisfied.” And one story has it that the best time to defeat the government will be as soon as October 2005.

The Leger poll … a Grit parliamentary majority in sight?

There are two good reports on the Leger poll – one from Donald MacKenzie at Canadian Press, datelined Montreal, and the other by John Cotter at Maclean’s, datelined Edmonton.

Canada-wide, the poll shows the Liberals at 40 per cent, with “Conservative support at 24 per cent ….the NDP … at 15 per cent and the Bloc Quebecois at 13 per cent.”

The poll also “revealed strong growth for the Liberals in Western Canada, including a jump of 16 percentage points in Alberta in two months and an increase of 14 percentage points in British Columbia.” (According to Alberta conservative commentator Link Byfield: “a lot of Albertans are starting to conclude the federal Conservatives can’t change anything … to be elected as government they would have to so soften the policies that we wouldn’t see much in them.”)

In Ontario, “the Liberals outstripped the Conservatives by a 46-27 margin, while the Bloc Quebecois continued its dominance in Quebec, leading the Grits by a 55-34 score.”

From one angle, the most striking suggestion here is that at 40% Canada-wide the Liberals are now in the range where the strange political arithmetic of Canada’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system could give them a clear majority of seats in Parliament in a fresh election. In the November 2000 election, they “romped to their third consecutive majority with 40.8 per cent.”

This may all sound very nice for Paul Martin at last. At least until you also remember that “53 per cent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with Martin’s government, compared with 40 per cent who were satisfied.” Which is really not much better than the current parallel opinion-poll assessment of the beleaguered George W. Bush in the land of the giant next door.

Paul Martin in the global village

Whatever else, Paul Martin’s Liberals have clearly improved their standings in the latest Leger survey. And international events may have something to do with this.

Chinese president Hu Jintao arrived in Ottawa for his extended Canadian visit in the middle of the polling period. Then Martin gave what some saw as an almost impressive personal performance at an otherwise lackluster United Nations summit in New York.

After the polling period, Hu Jintao had further bold things to say about Canada during his last days in Vancouver. And Martin seemed to enjoy some small success pitching China as an alternative market for Canadian softwood lumber (on which the Bush administration is apparently still keen to levy outrageous tariffs, in an era of supposed North American free trade).

As a conceivable additional sign that something about the Liberals’ North American policy just may be working, a bit, Washington has now announced that the “United States will close a gap in its defense against mad cow disease by changing feed regulations to mirror those in Canada.”

Hurricane Katrina’s dent in the fortunes of George W. Bush’s brand of conservatism in the USA has probably done some parallel damage to Stephen Harper’s conservatism in Canada too.

Meanwhile, a fresh federal election in Germany has further stalled international conservative momentum. And recent elections in both Germany and New Zealand have shown Canadians how a reformed electoral system featuring proportional representation would probably never give the Liberals or anyone else a majority government in Canada again.

Fast times on Parliament Hill

A recent Hill Times report on the latest strategizing in Ottawa seems to be making two key points about potential parliamentary soap opera tactics over the fall and winter season of 2005-2006.

The first is that Jack Layton’s New Democrats could play a still more crucial role than they did this past spring – but on the opposite side of the fence.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper has apparently “said that defeating the government in the next session will depend largely on the NDP as the Conservatives and the Bloc have a combined total of 152 seats and in order to bring down the government, they need 155 votes.” [Just to round the picture out, the Liberals and NDP together also have 152 seats. There are three independents – the former Liberals Kilgour, O’Brien, and Parrish – and the late Chuck Cadman’s seat in Surrey North, BC is vacant.]

As it happens, NDP leader Jack Layton has “said unlike the last Parliamentary session, his party would be ready to try to bring down the government.” In particular, if the Liberal cabinet tries “to reintroduce the corporate tax cuts that it scrapped in May, the NDP will vote against it.”

The Liberals do apparently plan to reintroduce these tax cuts. Which could seem like good fun – until you remember that the Conservatives are bound to vote for the cuts themselves. [Meanwhile as of Monday, September 26 it has been reported that the Liberal minority government has put corporate tax cuts on hold until after the next election, just in case Mr. Harper’s Conservatives do decide to surprise everyone on this score.]

There may be another issue that can somehow unite all of the Conservatives, Bloc, and NDP (though it’s hard to see how it could be health insurance either – another recent subject of speculation by Jack Layton). But if there is it would apparently be best if it emerged very soon.

According to the second key point in the Hill Times‘ parliamentary strategy report: “Opposition insiders” say “that the best time to defeat the government would be in October because the first Gomery report would be damaging for the Liberals and would land in the middle of an election campaign. This, they argue, would deliver the maximum advantage to the opposition parties … defeating the government after the first Gomery report is released would not be as practical’ because that would push an election too close to Christmas.”

Tale of two Gomery reports … (and a footnote on health insurance)

Wisely or not, some Conservative insiders apparently still feel that “our best hope” of winning the next federal election, whenever it comes, “is the Gomery report.”

In fact (and as the proposition that October is the best time for the Conservatives to try to defeat the government turns around), there will be two Gomery documents. The first is the “the potentially explosive Nov. 1 Gomery report” – which will just describe all the salacious details of the sponsorship scandal under former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

It is no doubt the raw details of the scandal in the first report that stand the greatest chance of turning the tide against Paul Martin’s fragile Liberal minority government once again. The second report will merely make boring recommendations about how to avoid such scandals in the future. And, as the Ottawa cynics say, who really cares about that?

It is, however, 30 days after the release of the second report that Prime Minister Martin has promised to call a fresh election at last – if the prior defeat of his minority government has not already forced an election before then. The deadline for this second report used to be Dec. 15, but has lately been advanced to Feb 1, 2006. And the smartest money still seems to be saying that this is the route by which the next election will most likely arrive.

Meanwhile, Paul Coffin, the first certified participant in the sponsorship scandal to be sentenced in a criminal court, has not been punished too severely. And Prime Minister Martin has just told a group of senior civil servants on retreat in the Gatineau hills: “The issues related to the Gomery inquiry, issues that have reflected on both those who are elected and those who are professional public servants – these are unacceptable aberrations in a public sector that is honest, talented and committed to Canadians … It is that commitment that must motivate us this fall and beyond as we move to further strengthen the integrity and accountability of government.”

Meanwhile again, federal health minister Ujjal Dosanjh has refused “to be drawn into a debate over Alberta’s examination of private health-care insurance … Dosanjh – buoyed by a new poll which shows Liberal fortunes soaring over Stephen Harper’s Tories federally and even rising in traditionally anti-Liberal Alberta – did not seem to want to say anything that might rock that boat.” Other members of the 38th Parliament that will reconvene in Ottawa this coming Monday, September 26 (Jack Layton is already a first example) will not be so careful.

Leave Comment