Thursday, July 01, 2004

The most important question about this election

The evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, seems clear. There was a large-scale shifting of votes from Conservative and NDP to Liberal over the final weekend. The question is why. My guess is that the reason for switch was a stew of a number of items:

For many I think the impression was that despite Harper’s efforts to dispel the notion, many in Ontario believed that the new Conservatives were identical to the old Alliance in terms of social conservatism. It wasn’t Liberal attack ads that truly established this impression. Rather it was Harper constantly being undermined by other MP’s candidly disclosing views at odds with the efforts of the leader to portray an image of moderation: Cheryl Gallant on abortion; Scott Reid on bilingualism; Randy White at the end of the campaign on the Charter of Rights and the role of the courts was undoubtedly of special importance.

Conservative MP John Reynolds also identifies Ralph Klein’s comments on health care as a key factor. See this Toronto Star report. It had the same impact as the examples above. A perceived key ally appeared to undermine Harper’s stated commitment to medicare. In addition, the popular big city mayors in Toronto and Vancouver, David Miller and Larry Campbell, attacked the Conservatives commitment to cities late in the campaign comparing their policies unfavourably with the Liberals. One could add other factors but the general impact for those who fled to the Liberals was the creation of a noxious stew they were anxious to avoid.

The contradictions raised doubts among an electorate that did not seek radical change. Safety was the Liberal government devil they knew, and if that meant not casting their first choice vote for the NDP, or a frustrated desire to punish the Liberals for the sponsorship scandal by voting Conservative or BQ, at least life would go on as the electorate knew it, in the interim.

This is a lesson the Conservatives need to absorb. Their failure to win national elections is not because of disunity on the right, which is what they belived going into this campaign. It is because they are seen by the public as too far to the right and too extreme, exactly reflecting the charges levied by the likes of Joe Clark, Scott Brison, Keith Martin and many others. If John Tory, at one time the principal secretary to Bill Davis, wins the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in September, a precedent will have been established that could cause a national Conservative Party, fixated on their perception that the Mike Harris regime was actually popular in Ontario, to reflect on its direction going forward.

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