Poll shows Chrétien loser in Martin affair
Most want PM to quit before next election
Les Whittington
OTTAWA — Canadians overwhelmingly disapprove of the way Jean Chrétien dumped former finance minister Paul Martin and want the Prime Minister to resign before the next election, a new nationwide poll shows.

The affair has hurt Chrétien in the eyes of the public, with supporters of every federal party now saying they would be more inclined to support the Liberals if Martin replaced Chrétien as leader.

But the poll, the largest and most comprehensive since Martin's dismissal Sunday, also found Canadians still overwhelmingly support the Liberals despite the party's internal battles.

The recent furor over Martin's ouster "has left the Prime Minister wounded, but it may not be too life-threatening," said Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates Inc., which conducted the poll for The Toronto Star, CBC and La Presse.

Graves also said Canadians are "riveted" to the political events in Ottawa in unprecedented numbers, with more than 80 per cent of those polled saying they are closely following the developments.

EKOS canvassed 1,225 adults across the country by telephone between Tuesday and Thursday as the controversy over Martin's dismissal stirred unusually strong national interest. The results are considered valid within plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Pollsters found that 56 per cent of respondents believe Martin was actually fired by Chrétien on Sunday, as Martin claimed. Only 7 per cent thought the former finance minister quit, as the Prime Minister asserted.

More than half of those surveyed agreed that Martin was a "terrific" finance minister and was "treated very unfairly" by Chrétien.

And, on another question, 71 per cent said they disapproved of the Prime Minister's conduct when he removed Martin from cabinet. Conversely, 57 per cent approved of how Martin conducted himself in the dispute over party leadership that led to Sunday's cabinet shuffle.

"The initial reaction is to blame the Prime Minister, with public sympathies leaning overwhelmingly toward Mr. Martin," Graves observed.

Six out of 10 respondents said the Prime Minister should resign before the next election. One-third disagreed and 7 per cent had no opinion. Liberals were evenly split on this question, with 48 per cent saying Chrétien should quit before the next election and 47 per cent disagreeing.

The poll also found that with Martin leading his party, 66 per cent of Canadians would be likely or somewhat likely to vote Liberal, as opposed to 43 per cent if Chrétien was heading the party. Among Liberals, 85 per cent would be likely or somewhat likely to vote Liberal if Martin were leader, compared with 77 per cent under Chrétien. But as party leader, Martin could also attract large numbers of voters from other parties. EKOS found that 61 per cent of Canadian Alliance supporters would be likely or somewhat likely to vote Liberal with Martin as leader versus 4 per cent with Chrétien.

Among Progressive Conservatives, 62 per cent said they would be inclined to support the Liberals under Martin (versus 11 per cent with Chrétien). Among New Democrats, 51 per cent would be inclined to support the Liberals under Martin (versus 27 with Chrétien) and among Bloc Québécois voters, it was 41 per cent under Martin (versus none with Chrétien).

"It's quite clear that, if the public had their choice today, they'd take Paul Martin. That would be a better choice," Graves commented, adding the tumult at the highest levels of government has created a very unstable political situation.

There was strong support for curbing a prime minister's ability to stay in power, with a majority of those surveyed favouring a rule inspired by the United States that would limit the head of the government to two terms in office.

Canadians also believe Martin would do a better job than Chrétien cleaning up the scandals over corruption and conflict of interest that have battered the federal government in recent months. Of those surveyed, 51 per cent said Martin is better able to deal with ethics and corruption than Chrétien, while 21 per cent gave the nod to the current Prime Minister. Among Liberals, 48 per cent said Martin would do a better job dealing with corruption versus 31 per cent who chose Chrétien.

Despite the messy Chrétien-Martin clash and the uproar over alleged corruption, the Liberals continue to hold on to first place in voter estimation by a wide margin, with 49.9 per cent of decided voters saying they would cast their ballot for the Liberals if a vote were held "tomorrow." Support for the Canadian Alliance stands at 16.0 per cent; Progressive Conservatives, 12.6 per cent; NDP, 10.8 per cent; and Bloc Québécois, 7.8 per cent.

In Ontario, the Liberals enjoy 58 per cent of decided voter support, with the Canadian Alliance at 16 per cent and the Conservatives close behind at 15 per cent. The NDP has 10 per cent (and "other" accounts for 1 per cent).

Nationally, half of Canadians say they still don't feel comfortable that any of the opposition parties could form a competent government no matter how much difficulty the Liberals are having. "The only visible threat to continued Liberal dominance on the Canadian political landscape comes from Liberals themselves," Graves said.

But recent events do not augur well for the Liberals. Public satisfaction that the government is moving in the right direction over the "short-term" horizon plummeted in the past two weeks to 41 per cent from 54 per cent, according to the poll. And almost two-thirds said Martin's departure from the cabinet would harm the Liberal party.

A huge majority — 88 per cent — want the government to go ahead with its proposal to ensure that all donations to leadership campaigns are publicly declared. Chrétien, whose government has been under fire because of conflict-of-interest questions about how cabinet ministers are raising money for the unofficial Liberal leadership race, is expected to bring in new rules next week.

Graves said 54 per cent of Canadians say that, with the economy performing well, it would be "unwise to disrupt national stability over leadership ambitions."

Nonetheless, when asked if the Prime Minister should resign before the next election, only 33 per cent said he should stay on in office compared to almost two-thirds who said he should quit in advance of another national election. And only 37 per cent agreed Chrétien deserves the right to decide his own future because of his stature as Liberal leader and his success in the last election. In contrast, 47 per cent said he does not have the right to decide when he will resign while 16 per cent had no opinion.

EKOS discovered that the Martin-Chrétien feud drew intense national attention of the kind more likely to be associated with the men's gold medal Olympic hockey game, with 84 per cent of respondents aware that Martin had been moved out of the federal cabinet.

"This Martin-Chrétien affair has provided a spectacle and drama beyond" anything seen before in his polling, Graves said.

Almost three-quarters agreed the affair was a "childish spectacle" unworthy of top political leaders. Canadians overwhelmingly saw the clash between the Liberal rivals as a conflict of power, ambition and personality. Many also attributed it to a disagreement about ground rules for a future Liberal leadership campaign.

Opinion among all respondents is split on whether Martin or Chrétien is best able to deal with Quebec and the issue of sovereignty. However, among Liberals, Chrétien is seen as having a clear advantage on Quebec.

Geographically, Martin has strong support in Ontario. He also is relatively more popular among men, upper-income groups and older Canadians. Chrétien draws support in Atlantic Canada and is relatively more popular among youth, women and lower-income groups.

Graves said that, despite the corruption controversy and the Martin incident, the Liberals' continuing popularity means that Chrétien might be able to ride out the current storm over his leadership. It will come to a head in February, when the Prime Minister will be subjected to a mandatory confidence vote on his leadership at a national party convention.

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