Thestar.com
Great expectations benefit Liberals
Jim Travers
OTTAWA

IN THE STRANGE, new world of federal politics, nothing works like surrender.

From their cottages and hammocks, Canadians took a long, hard look at the four national political parties over the last few days and decided that the most attractive are those now putting old leaders out to pasture. And the most attractive of all is a Liberal party that last week avoided rupture by forcing at least the promise of retirement from a recalcitrant Prime Minister and opened the way for Paul Martin's succession.

According to public opinion polled in the immediate aftermath of the extraordinary unpleasantness in Chicoutimi, voters so enthusiastically endorse Jean Chrétien's departure and his assumed, if delayed, replacement by Martin that Liberals are again the first choice in every region from coast to coast. In that wonderfully shopworn phrase, if an election were held tomorrow Liberals, who won three consecutive majorities with Jean Chrétien, would grab more than 200 seats as they sweep the country behind Martin.

How good are prospects for the ruling party? Well, according to the EKOS Research poll conducted for The Star, the erosion of the past few months has been stopped and Liberal support is up more than 12 points over the 40.9 per cent support it captured while routing Stockwell Day and the Alliance in the 2000 election.

It is even better in Ontario. In the critical province that ensured Chrétien's victories, a stunning 64 per cent favour the party synonymous with government.

What's even more intriguing is that the one conservative party that has already found a fresh new leader is now losing significant ground to one that is just beginning its search. While many voters are still sitting on the fence, enough are committed to push a Tory party that won't be led by Joe Clark past an Alliance that, barring yet another in the seemingly endless series of leadership races, will be directed by the incredible disappearing Stephen Harper.

Adding both rhyme and reason to the Tories' weekend decision to put the unite-the-right movement mercifully behind them, the poll shows an Alliance in free fall. Canada's Official Opposition now rivals the NDP, another party in the process of replacing its leader, and the regional Bloc Québécois in national support. The Alliance with Harper now claims just over 10 per cent national support compared to the 25.5 per cent it won in the last election.

What pops out of the poll is that this is a time of great expectations. And no one is benefiting more than the prime-minister-in-waiting.

Even after the ugly challenge to Chrétien, the former finance minister is widely considered a miracle cure for whatever ails the county. Voters are brimming with hope that Martin will bring a greater managerial competence to Ottawa while both cutting taxes and increasing spending on the social programs Canadians care about most.

For the opposition, that makes Martin a kind of doomsday political weapon. Martin personifies the most palatable, most guaranteed-to-please electoral elixir: change without risk.

If there is any risk at all it is that expectations for Martin are absurdly high. Given the time that Liberals and others are willing to wait for Chrétien's departure, increased policy scrutiny and the serendipitous political process can only diminish Martin's current superman status.

Still, while Martin loyalists will be disappointed that there isn't more support to hustle Chrétien out of office before February, 2004, there is solace for them in poll results suggesting the former finance minister is the clear favourite to lead the nation, and is the distant, lonely frontrunner in the Liberal leadership race.

As EKOS president Frank Graves points out, Martin's 51-point lead over John Manley, the nearest rival, turns a contest into a coronation. "If anything, Mr. Martin has increased and concentrated what was already a very popular position with the public."

Just below the surface of those numbers and that analysis is a warning for the Prime Minister. Attempts to cripple Martin and to handicap or delay the coming leadership race are almost as certain to be unpopular as they will be unsuccessful.

Barring the unforeseen, Martin's stranglehold on the leadership is secure, particularly when it is remembered that Manley's support largely comes from the same older, fiscally conservative voters who skew so heavily to Chrétien's heir apparent. Any new, blatant attempts to put obstacles in Martin's path are loaded with dangers for Chrétien, who would be accused of abusing his already controversial final 18 months in power to the detriment of the party and to the man most Canadians agree should be the next prime minister.

But that dark cloud hovers far in background of this snapshot of the current political scene. In the foreground, and much better defined, is the mood of a nation ready to rid itself of the old in favour of something more promising, something new.




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