THE LATEST Toronto Star/CBC/La Presse EKOS
poll is a sharp reminder to all federal parties that it is policy, not
politics, that ultimately makes or breaks electoral fortunes.
While the ethical storm that has hit the federal government has
resulted in the first significant erosion of Liberal support since the
last election, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's party at 44.8 per cent still
holds nearly a 30 point lead on the rest of the pack.
The loss of nine percentage points in support since January, 2002 —
half of which were lost over the past two stormy weeks — demonstrates that
the integrity failings of the government are registering with voters.
Canadians don't buy the Prime Minister's line that bureaucrats are
to blame for the faulty files that have come to light. When it comes to
ethics, civil servants are considered more trustworthy than federal
But the poll also shows that Chrétien still has the means to remedy
More than twice as many voters feel the Liberals are best able to
deal with issues of trust and corruption than any other party. The
majority of them would be inclined to want Chrétien to act decisively.
The so-called eight-points plan on ethics released by the Prime
Minister last week was too vague to register with two-thirds of Canadians.
But a majority of those who noticed the speech were pleased that Chrétien
was addressing the issue.
Even more of a hit was the swift firing of defence minister Art
Eggleton last Sunday. Sixty per cent of voters approved that dramatic
Such an overwhelmingly positive response would indicate that if
Chrétien were to put a solid electoral reform package forward, if he were
to put in an ethics code with real teeth in place, he would score with the
In the reverse, though, his lacklustre performance on the integrity
front to date is not proving to be as rich a vein of discontent to tap
into as some of the opposition parties would hope.
The NDP, which has shown the least appetite for the scandal-hunt
fever that has overtaken Parliament Hill, is also the only opposition
party to emerge from this mid-mandate check-up in much better health than
in the last election.
At 12.6 per cent, Alexa McDonough's party is still a long way from
regaining a position of real influence in Parliament, but the numbers
amount to its best performance in a long time and may be a sign that the
recent NDP by-election victory in Windsor was not just a local fluke.
With Stockwell Day gone, the Canadian Alliance has started to
recoup some of the ground it lost to its leadership crisis. Since January,
the party has regained its top position in Alberta, has risen from 6 per
cent to 16.5 per cent in Ontario, and has gained eight points nationally.
But it is still nine points short of its 2000 election finish.
Looking at the last month, neither Stephen Harper's arrival in Parliament
nor the Liberals' troubles on the ethics front have given the Alliance
much of a boost.
Even more telling is the fate of both the Bloc Québécois and the
Tories, parties that have been as scandal-hungry as they have been policy
The Bloc has fallen well behind the Liberals in Quebec. Its
criticism of the ethics of the government resonates less in Quebec than
anywhere else in Canada.
As for Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark — who has spent
the past year preoccupied almost exclusively by the dual files of tactics
and ethics — his party is barely up a point from the last election.
Neither the Alliance's troubles last year nor the more current Liberal
ones are benefiting his party.
The opposition might also be short-sighted in sacrificing the
opportunity to hold the government's feet to the policy fire for the blood
sport of scandal-hunting.
Despite the drop in Liberal support, more Canadians think the
government is headed in the right direction today than a few months ago,
when substantial issues such as the war on terrorism, Canada's presence in
Afghanistan and the lumber dispute with the U.S. dominated the news.
That should not come as a complete surprise.
For all of the ethical clouds that accumulated on the horizon of
the Brian Mulroney Tories, it was not the scandals that did his government
in but major policy initiatives on the fronts of free trade and the
And so it is that, even as 65 per cent of Canadians now feel that
Chrétien's ethics are about the same or worse than Mulroney's, the former
still has a long way to go to match the fall from grace of the latter.
Voters, of course, rarely have cause to notice Chrétien's policies
as they are few and far between, and that, so far, seems to have been an
unfortunate but nevertheless effective ingredient of his political