Election Looming for Fall 2000

In the game of image politics, Stockwell Day set the bar a notch higher last week - possibly one notch over the top. Fresh from his runaway triumph in the Okanagan/Cocquihalla byelection, the body-conscious Canadian Alliance leader offered up a striking image of the man who would be Canada's next prime minister. Skimming across the waters of British Columbia's Lake Okanagan on a Yamaha Wave Runner, Day skidded onto shore decked out in a skintight wet suit and proclaimed to the assembled media that he meant to practise politics differently. There were guffaws in the Ottawa offices of the Prime Minister. "I can promise you, Jean Chrétien will never do a scrum in spandex," chuckled Françoise Ducros, the Prime Minister's communications director, whose own boss is no slouch at the action photo op. Tory Leader Joe Clark, who also won a House of Commons seat last week in the Nova Scotia riding of Kings/Hants, took himself out of the most-macho-politician contest as well, saying Day should rename his Canadian Alliance the "costume party."

But behind the ribbing, many are clearly worried. With the resumption of Parliament this week, concern among Liberal strategists mounted that the attention-gobbling Alliance leader could become a star in the House and upset the governing party's carefully laid plans for re-election. By week's end, rumours swirled around the capital that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had again put a fall election back in play. A Liberal source told Maclean's that some of the Prime Minister's key strategists are telling him poll numbers are unlikely to go higher, and with last week's health accord in place, and the Tories in disarray, the time is right to strike. A quick election opens the Liberals to charges of opportunism, the election hawks concede, but there is equal risk that a winter of high energy prices will sour the electorate's mood by spring. "I still say a spring election is more likely, but I'm not counting out going early," the Liberal official said.

Can Day make a big splash in national politics, and can Clark rescue his disintegrating party? The true test begins after this week's swearing in of the two in the Commons. The Tory leader would seem to have the advantage of experience. He has sat a total of 16 years as leader of the Opposition, prime minister and senior member of Brian Mulroney's cabinet - where he was generally acknowledged to be an effective performer. Despite 14 years in the Alberta legislature, including the last three as treasurer, Day is a rookie to the blood sport played in the nation's capital. Acknowledging his greenness, Day took pains to ratchet down expectations, allowing he "might make some mistakes."

Experience, though, only counts if you have a chance to play. And with two highly publicized Tory defections to the Liberals last week, Clark will take his place in the Commons at the head of a greatly diminished Conservative party. When the House gets down to business, the Liberals will have 159 seats, the Alliance 58, the Bloc Québécois 44, while the NDP will have 20 MPs and the Tories 15. As the leader of the fifth-largest party, Clark will likely only get, at best, two chances to grill the government during question period - and only after all the other leaders.

Day's advantage, besides the exposure of asking the first questions every day, is the much larger caucus and research budget that comes with official Opposition status. But because he is the newcomer, all eyes will be on him, which brings both pitfalls and opportunity, observes Darrell Bricker of the Angus Reid polling firm. "For good or bad," Bricker says, "there's no second chance to make a first impression in politics. This will be a period of definition for him."

Last week, Day anticipated that his "honeymoon" period in the House would last about eight seconds. Even that may be overly optimistic. With an election looming, and with the Liberals seeking a rare third majority, the government is eager to attack the Alliance at a time when Day is trying to present himself as the right man for the new millennium. Chrétien has been practising his lines since the Liberal caucus meetings in late August, when he blasted Day for his anti-abortion views and labelled him "Blocwell Day" for seeking an "unholy alliance" by courting members of the separatist BQ. The Liberals were also quick to pounce on Day's suggestion last week that the House do away with the "sham" of Friday sittings, when the leaders seldom appear. "The next time you switch jobs, go ask your leader for every Friday off and see how far that's going to get you," mocked Liberal House leader Don Boudria.

The Prime Minister has shown no greater deference to Clark, confirming the defection of David Price and Diane St-Jacques - two-thirds of the Tories' Quebec caucus - in a congratulatory phone call about an hour before the embattled leader was to address supporters after his byelection victory. Clark bitterly called the timing "absolutely offensive." But, in reality, Chrétien is Clark's political adversary and owes him no favours. Clark's anger was more logically directed at his own party's president, Peter Van Loan, whom Clark accused of seeking to round up support for a leadership review. Although Van Loan initially issued a statement denying the charge, Clark was not totally convinced. "Certainly something was going on and it was extremely unhelpful," he said in an interview. By late last week, Van Loan had resigned, but Clark's troubles were not resolved as fresh reports circulated that new acting president Jacques Léger had also been sounding out members about the leader.

The Tories still harbour illusions of being a national alternative to the Liberals. But the Sept. 11 defections - Clark earlier lost his sole Ontario MP, Jim Jones, to the Alliance - may have damaged the party beyond repair. Liberal strategists once believed that if they propped up the Tories, Clark's party would split the right-wing vote with the Alliance. But as last week's raid on the Tory ranks showed, times have changed. Liberal insiders now argue that the 10 per cent or so of Canadians who still plan to vote Conservative are just as likely to gravitate to the Liberals as to the Alliance should the Tories disintegrate. "As the Tories crumble," said one Liberal official, "are we going to pick up their crumbs? Yes."

By contrast, the 159-member Liberal caucus troops back to Ottawa this week in a state of relative equanimity. The ongoing leadership rivalry between Chrétien and Paul Martin has been set aside until at least after the election, with the finance minister deciding to remain the assistant captain on the team. One Martin loyalist said up to 70 members of caucus "begged him" to stay on for the good of the party, although he added that the relationship between Martin and Chrétien "was lousy to begin with - now it's worse." But sources say the pressure on Chrétien to retire will almost certainly build again, should the Canadian Alliance's polling numbers begin inching up to the 30-per-cent range this fall - and especially if the party is reduced to minority status after the election. "I think our numbers will dip, but I'm afraid it will happen when we're two weeks into the election campaign," the Martin loyalist lamented.

On the policy front, the Liberals last week erected a load-bearing pillar for their re-election platform by inking a health-care deal with the premiers. The agreement restores most of the cuts to federal transfers made in the mid-1990s, increasing payouts to provinces for health and education from the current $15.5 billion to $18.3 billion next year, and rising to $21.1 billion in fiscal year 2005-2006. Despite Chrétien's veiled threats to run on the issue if no deal was reached, it was not a strong one for the Liberals, says Walter Robinson, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. "How do you run on saving health care when you're the one that acted like Jack Kevorkian by pulling the plug on funding in the first place?" he asked. Almost unnoticed was an agreement with the provinces that pumps a further $2.2 billion into early-childhood development.

Canadians can also look for more tidying up of outstanding issues in the coming weeks. Among them: a new immigration bill to crack down on people-smuggling; measures to protect endangered species; tougher penalties for youth offenders; and legislation to reform financial institutions. Moreover, Chrétien is widely expected to shuffle his cabinet soon, and further defuse the grants scandal at Human Resources Development Canada by splitting up the unwieldy department to lighten the load on Jane Stewart, the department's weakened minister.

But the highlight of the fall session, at least for the government, comes in November when Martin delivers his mid-year economic update. In the past, he has used the occasion to boast about how well the Liberals have managed the country's finances. The statement will give the government an opportunity to test the water by shedding new light on further tax relief and program spending. This year's update is likely to foreshadow spending for infrastructure projects, foreign aid, and research and development, all to be finally decided in February's budget. With an $8.2-billion surplus in just the first three months of this fiscal year, said one government official, "we're flush - there's money to do all sorts of things." And that may trump image, even Wave Runners and wet suits, when the time comes for Canadians to choose the next government.

Maclean's September 25, 2000