|Support for the Ontario Conservatives under Premier Mike Harris has plummeted to its lowest level since the party first came to power in 1995, a new public opinion poll shows. The survey, released just days before the Tories' sixth anniversary in office, shows the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty would win a clear majority victory if an election were held now. ``It's not so much the Liberals are doing better, (rather) the Tories are doing worse,'' said Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates. The Toronto Star poll, conducted by Ekos Research, shows the Liberals with 50 per cent of decided voters, compared with 34 per cent for the Tories. The province's New Democrats with leader Howard Hampton and just nine seats in the Legislature, are at 12 per cent while 3 per cent support other parties. In the last election on June 3, 1999, the Tories captured 46 per cent of the votes while the Liberals received 40 per cent and the NDP 13 per cent. The poll is the largest conducted in Ontario since the 1999 election and is considered the truest snapshot of voter intentions. The next election is expected in 2003. Some 18 per cent said they did not know which party they supported or refused to say. The results are based on telephone interviews with 1,209 Ontario residents between April 24 and May 22. The poll is considered accurate within 2.8 percentage points, 19 times in 20. The poll is a clear indication that Ontario voters are upset with the Harris government's handling of health care and education, Graves suggested.
It also shows female voters are turning their backs on the Harris government in huge numbers, as are young voters and those with middle- and lower-income levels. Graves attributed some of the Tory slump to Harris and Health Minister Tony Clement's recent comments about increasing private-sector involvement in the province's health-care system. The recent move by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to give tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools was likely not a major factor in the poll because the bulk of the interviews with voters were conducted before the May 9 budget announcement, Graves said. The poll is particularly good news for McGuinty and the Liberals, who have hammered the Tories over health care and education for the past two years. The gap between the Liberals and the Tories is the biggest since the 1999 election - and is widening. But it is bad news for the NDP and Hampton, with a clear indication that neither the party nor the leader have gained any significant ground on either of the two other parties. The NDP has remained almost rock solid in support at 11-12 per cent since the last election - a signal it could again be facing the threat of losing its official party status in the next election. Graves said that while the polling numbers for the Tories are not drastically lower than they were at this time last year - when support for the Tories was at 37 per cent compared to 48 per cent for the Liberals in the weeks following the Walkerton water tragedy - the split between men and women has intensified dramatically. ``There is an extreme gender skew to males and older upper-income households,'' Graves said of the Tory numbers. The poll shows that Tory support is 63 per cent male and 37 per cent female. Conservative supporters are also over-represented in the higher-income brackets of people earning more than $80,000 and over the age of 65. The poll results come on the eve of the provincial Conservatives' anniversary barbecue tomorrow to celebrate the two years that have passed since they won re-election and the six years they have been in office. Harris will attend the barbecue in King City after campaigning with his party's candidate in the upcoming by-election in Vaughan-King-Aurora to fill the seat held by former cabinet minister Al Palladini, who died in February. On the gender issue, which is not a new one for the Tories and one that Harris said the party would attempt to address in the run-up to the 1999 campaign, the Liberal support is 58 per cent female and 42 per cent male. On the issue of privatization of health services, both Harris and Clement have said they are not opposed to private companies building and running hospitals or other medical clinics as long as they are accessible to all. ``I wonder if they are taking a hit because of the focus on health-care privatization, hardly a popular issue in Ontario,'' Graves said, adding that talk of private health care coincided with the survey of Ontarians. He added that tracking polls show that when the government was focusing on changes in the public education system, support remained high or at least stable, but the shift to talking about fundamental changes to medicare may have hurt them with voters.
`It's not so much the Liberals are doing better'