Apr. 5, 2003
 
Liberals set for massive majority? (Apr. 5)  
Urquhart: Is election on hold? (Apr. 5)  
Tories to poll public on throne speech (Apr. 3)  
Like spring, is election on hold?

IAN URQUHART

If the Conservatives' own polls are anything like the one published in today's Toronto Star, the next provincial election won't be called any time soon.

Indeed, it could well be put off until the fall.

The numbers in today's EKOS poll, commissioned by the Star, are very bad for the governing Tories. In terms of popular support, they have dropped since January from 36 per cent to 34 per cent, while the opposition Liberals have gone up from 49 per cent to 53 per cent.

Put another way, the gap between the two parties has widened from 13 percentage points to 19 points.

And that's after three months of government ads and announcements aimed at shoring up Tory support while the Legislature (the opposition's platform) has been in recess.

There is other bad news for the Tories in the body of the EKOS poll:

They did not get the traditional "bounce" from last week's budget, the venue of which (an auto-parts facility rather than the Legislature) overshadowed the content. Just 21 per cent of respondents thought the budget was "good;" as many thought it was "poor." In comparison, the public rated the federal budget in February, which was presented in Parliament, as "good" by a two-to-one margin.

The Tories under Premier Ernie Eves are losing their reputations as good managers of the province's finances and the economy. For example, just 36 per cent rated Eves as the best leader for dealing with "provincial debt and public finances" compared with 31 per cent who preferred Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty for the task. In the run-up to the 1999 election, Eves' predecessor, Mike Harris, scored a staggering 82 per cent on this question compared with just 5 per cent for McGuinty.

The centrepiece issue on which the Tories had planned to run their re-election campaign was more tax cuts. But today's poll shows that 13 per cent of the public favour that option as opposed to 68 per cent who want more spending on social programs like health and education (McGuinty's preference).

Conservative insiders were chortling earlier this year when McGuinty pronounced himself as firmly opposed to more tax cuts. They saw it as a politically suicidal move by the Liberal leader.

But if today's poll is accurate, McGuinty will have the last laugh.

One must, of course, make allowances for some lying on this question by the respondents, who might feel that social spending is the politically correct answer even though, in the secrecy of the ballot booth, they will opt for tax cuts.

Prior to the 1999 provincial election, in response to the same question, 55 per cent favoured social spending (McGuinty's preference, then as now) compared with 21 per cent for tax cuts (Harris' platform). But Harris still beat McGuinty in the election.

What is significant, however, is that the gap between support for tax cuts and for social spending has widened since then from 34 per cent to 55 per cent.

The bottom line: The Tories are in danger of losing their "brand" as good economic managers and, to the extent that they retain it, they are on the wrong track (tax cuts).

The poll is not all bad for the government, however. There is some good news, including:

The Conservative vote is firmer, with 76 per cent of their supporters saying it is "unlikely" they would change their minds compared with 63 per cent for the Liberals.

One budget measure the property tax credit for seniors is proving to be popular, with 60 per cent supporting it and just 17 per cent against. The Liberals may have trouble sustaining their opposition to it.

Eves is on solid ground in criticizing the federal government for not joining the Americans in the war against Iraq. Some 47 per cent of Ontarians think we should be fighting with the Americans. While 43 per cent are opposed to the war, their votes will be split between the Liberals and the New Democrats.

But these silver linings cannot drive away the dark cloud of the overall poll, which suggests a crushing defeat for the Conservatives in the coming election.

The Conservatives have time on their side, of course. The fourth anniversary of the 1999 election is June 3, but they can decide to wait longer while they address their weaknesses.

The expectation is that the throne speech on April 30 will be packed with "wedge issues" aimed at breaking off chunks of Liberal support. That will likely be followed by a legislative session of a few weeks' duration featuring government goodies.

Then the election could be called in late May for late June. Or, if the poll numbers are still bad, the Tories could wait until the fall.

With delay comes risks, of course, which I listed in last Saturday's column: an economic downturn; a spate of negative media stories about the government "hanging on to power;" hydro brownouts; and a West Nile epidemic.

Here's one more: The trial in the Ipperwash civil lawsuit is due to begin Sept. 8. Senior Tory campaign officials are expected to be subpoenaed to testify.

Did I hear anyone say an election in 2004?

Additional articles by Ian Urquhart





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