Saturday, May 29, 2004

The First Week

A Star-Ekos poll released on Friday, May 28 suggests a close race with a weak Liberal minority. My seat count is Liberal – 126, Cons. – 97, NDP – 32, BQ – 53.
When the poll respondent’s second choices are requested, Ekos found that the NDP was in first place at 22% followed by the Conservatives at 20%. The second choice preferences strongly imply minority government.

The pollster believes that a substantial negative impact from the Liberal budget in Ontario on May 18 is a key explanatory factor. This could be. Ekos asked questions about the Ontario budget but hasn’t reported the results yet. But Ekos pollster Frank Graves said: "Ontarians are furious with Dalton McGuinty and his budget. They're looking for someone to get,"

The Liberals
I thought that during the first week of the campaign the Liberals ran the best campaign. They were quick to establish their key campaign theme – that they will reform and protect Medicare – and they consistently hammered away at it. The attacks of their opponents – mainly that Martin cut health care as Finance Minister – had some bite, but swing voters are mostly those who won’t remember the details about budgets a decade ago and, to some extent, will be confused by it all. This, at least, is what the Liberals hope. There is a fair bit of media commentary. However, it appears the Liberals have yet to do anything that will yield a recovery in Quebec, so minority government still looms. It is worth remembering that the last time the Liberals won a majority of francophone constituencies in Quebec was 1980, nearly 25 years ago.

All in all though, it was a generally good week for the Liberals. Their weakness in the Ekos poll released on May 28 shouldn’t be seen in my view as a contradiction as polls seem to me to have a lag effect. They tend to measure the impact of earlier events. This is one reason that last minute news, even if it is dramatic, tends not to affect election outcomes.

It takes time for campaign strategy and tactics to pay off. My comments here are only about the way I perceive the execution of campaign structure and strategy. The Liberals appeared to be very effective in establishing a cohesive theme for their campaign. At the end of a week focusing on health care they returned to the cities theme. A handful of key policies under an overarching theme are what parties try to achieve in an election campaign. The Liberals seem to be doing this effectively in week one.

The media is hostile to the Liberals, however, and is giving a great deal of play to the genuine hostility in reaction to the McGuinty budget. Anecdotally, I was also told by a Conservative canvasser in a suburban riding that there he encountered a lot of anger at the door and ABL sentiment – Anybody But (the) Liberals. A Liberal source confirms the antagonism to the budget. However, Martin’s record in this area is very strong – promising a balanced budget “come hell or high water”, and then delivering. There ought to be enough time for damage from this problem to be significantly reduced. However, I do see it as evidence of the fourth term problem.

The Conservatives
In week one the NDP and Conservatives used a more scattershot approach with the Tories emphasizing scandal (their big promise at the end of the week was to extend the powers of the Auditor-General). The Conservatives conceded their weakness in Quebec and Atlantic Canada by touring Eastern Canada in the first few days. Expect to see limited appearances there from now on. In Atlantic Canada, the Ekos Poll, once I convert the regional results to ridings, would give the Liberals 31 seats and the NDP 1 with the Tories being shut out.

The Conservatives were never going to do well in Quebec but the critique of federal bilingualism by their constitutional critic, Scott Reid, on May 27, despite Harper’s subsequent repudiation, has sealed their fate. Quebeckers already perceived the Conservatives this way and this type of “admission” can potentially be perceived as more real than the party’s official position. It could also be damaging to the Conservatives in Ontario.

The Stephen Harper charisma deficit is clearly still there. The title of a Chantal Hébert column this week was: Watching paint dry with Harper.

I thought the NDP had the weakest campaign. To be successful, any election campaign needs a cohesive theme to establish an answer to the ballot question:
“So why are you voting NDP?” and the answer of “I’m voting NDP because…” simply isn’t there. Their overall approach is too scattershot and Layton probably hurt himself somewhat with the homelessness comment ("Deaths due to homelessness in this city took a rapid rise immediately after Paul Martin cancelled the affordable housing program….”). More on this below.

The NDP has the following quote on its website This campaign is about who listens to you and who will make positive choices to build a green and prosperous country where no one is left behind. Ho-hum. Useful rhetoric for a speech perhaps, but not a campaign theme or a simple, cogent reason to vote NDP on election day. By contrast, Liberal voters can say: “I am going to vote Liberal because Paul Martin will protect health care.” Conservatives can say: “I’m voting for Stephen Harper because he is the only one who will cut taxes and reduce government waste.” What is the equivalent for the NDP? At the moment, it is not there.

Layton’s Remarks on Homelessness
One of Jack Layton’s faults is a proclivity for hyperbole. Clearly it was on display here. One of his virtues is an ability to learn from mistakes. If he read the papers or watched or listened to the news the day after his commotion caused by his comments, he would see that he needs to discipline himself better in the future. I noticed that his second day rhetoric was muted even while officially he clung to his position.

Even if the core facts are true, he left the impression that Paul Martin was very personally responsible for the deaths of the homeless by cutting affordable housing funding. Layton could easily have simply critiqued him for cutting the funding at a time when low vacancy rates and rising homelessness made that a callous decision, without appearing to be unfair. Now the appearance of unfairness has distracted from his message.

By coincidence, I concluded last summer that there was an increase in deaths among the homeless beginning around 1995. There is a plaque outside a church in downtown Toronto that I chanced upon. It recorded the deaths of the homeless by year beginning in 1991. After studying it for a few minutes I was struck by the rising incidence of deaths among the homeless recorded there after 1995. I concluded that the most likely cause was the sharp cut in welfare rates by the Harris government in July of 1995. This caused a significant drop in real income among the poorest in Toronto at a time when the rental vacancy rate was 1.2% and falling. Following the rate cut, the Harris government tightened eligibility requirements, another factor that could well have contributed to the rise in homelessness.

With respect to housing and Paul Martin, I think Layton’s remark was just partisan claptrap. In fact, building any affordable housing project is a long, complex, process that can take years. Any impact from the Martin decision could only have appeared years later, and any evaluation of the impact is obscured by the need to analyze other developments in the housing market and other changes, whereas the impact of the welfare policy shift was direct and quick. My impression at the time as well was that there was a rapid rise, after the welfare changes, of panhandling on Toronto streets, a factor likely associated with homelessness.

Conclusion: None of this matters much. The first week of a campaign is like the fall of 1939: a phony war. Only the most politically committed are paying much attention and most of them already have firm political commitments so what happened positively and negatively is much less important that what is to come.

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