Support slipping for Eves' Tories
`Formidable' lead for McGuinty's Liberals, poll shows
Caroline Mallan
Despite a new leader, a new Premier and a lot of free publicity of late, the Ontario Conservatives continue to slide in public opinion, according to a new poll.

The EKOS Research Associates poll conducted over three days last week shows the provincial Liberals under Leader Dalton McGuinty with a lead of 17 percentage points over Premier Ernie Eves' Tories.

The poll, commissioned by The Toronto Star, CBC and La Presse, shows a slight boost in Tory support during polls conducted in February appears to have been temporary.

The latest poll shows the Liberals with the support of half (49.7 per cent) of respondents, compared with 33.1 per cent for the Tories and 12.7 per cent for New Democrats.

EKOS president Frank Graves called the Liberal lead "not insurmountable, but pretty formidable" for the Tories to overcome.

"The Tories got a bit of a bump (in support) from the leadership, but it appears to have dissipated," he said.

The findings, from a survey of 464 Ontarians with a margin of error of 4.8 percentage points, shows that despite recent changes, this version of the Progressive Conservative government has the lowest approval rating since 1999.

Graves said that given the amount of publicity surrounding the five-way race to replace former premier Mike Harris, followed by the attraction of a new Premier being sworn in, a Speech from the Throne and a new cabinet, news of a slide in the polls may surprise most Tories.

"I would have to think these numbers would be really troubling for the Tories," he said, adding that Eves appears to not be enjoying any sort of honeymoon with voters in his first few weeks on the job.

This is despite Eves' efforts to have Ontarians think of him as more conciliatory and consultative than his hard-line predecessor Harris, and promising in his throne speech to boost funding for health and education and end confrontations with teachers and organized labour.

In recent weeks, Eves has surprised the Legislature with a promise that Ontario will soon get a long-talked-about clean drinking water act, based on New Democrat MPP Marilyn Churley's two-year-old private member's bill. A clean drinking water act was a key recommendation in Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor's final report of the Walkerton inquiry into the deaths of seven people from water tainted by E. coli and other bacteria in May, 2000.

The government ordered Hydro One directors to come up with a roll-back plan for the lucrative compensation packages they'd arranged for themselves, and Eves himself, a former deputy premier, stunned both opposition and back benches with news he'd paid back a $78,000 severance package weeks before the issue was raised in the Legislature.

He also vowed to make a greater effort to create more shelter space for Toronto's homeless, and Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer announced a $350 million boost to education funding, as well as an Education Equality Task Force to review the much criticized provincial funding formula.

The latest polling results represent a slip of five percentage points since February a gap Graves says they'd have had a better chance of closing in an election, compared to the 17-point difference.

Graves said the Liberal fortunes could be further bolstered by the current ethics scandal in Ottawa.

He said the fact that Ontarians generally like the balance of having one party in power federally and a different party in power provincially could help McGuinty's Liberals.

And while many Ontario Liberals feel their reputation is being tarnished, Graves said the opposite is true.

"The people are distinguishing between the (federal and provincial) parties," he said.

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