|Feb. 28, 2004|
Party weathering sponsorship scandal, Star survey shows
Conservatives are running a strong second at 32 per cent
OTTAWA—The "bleeding has stopped" for the Liberals and the party is in a position to win the next federal election, according to a Toronto Star poll released today. A survey by EKOS Research Associates gives the Liberals 42 per cent of the decided vote even though they are still in the midst of the sponsorship scandal. But the poll also shows the newly merged Conservatives running a strong second at 32 per cent. The poll of 1,020 adults, conducted Monday through Wednesday of this week, puts the New Democrats in third place with 15 per cent of decided voter support and the Bloc Québécois at 9 per cent. Results from a survey of that size are considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20. But the survey showed a severe drop in popularity for the Liberals. An EKOS poll in December showed them coasting toward another majority government with 56 per cent support."This is the steepest and most rapid decline in the Liberal Party of Canada's fortunes in contemporary political history," EKOS president Frank Graves said yesterday. "It's more than a blip — (it has) now registered on four national polls, although comparing these findings with earlier ones from Ipsos-Reid suggests the bleeding has stopped and we are seeing a rebound." An Ipsos-Reid poll released on Feb. 20 showed 36 per cent of decided voters backed the Liberals, 27 per cent supported the Conservatives, and 17 per cent backed the NDP. In a telling statistic, almost 40 per cent of those surveyed this week by EKOS said they were "so disturbed with ethics and accountability" issues raised by the scandal that they "simply won't vote for the Liberals" in the next election. And the poll found Canadians are against Prime Minister Paul Martin going ahead with a planned spring election. Only 23 per cent said the election should be held in the next three months, with more than 70 per cent in favour of sending Canadians to the polls within the next six months or much later. "The sponsorship issue is gaining unprecedented attention, and its short-term impact on the Liberals has been profoundly negative," Graves said. "For the first time in recent memory, there is a sense of real possibility for a non-Liberal government emerging."Auditor-General Sheila Fraser's scathing Feb. 10 report said the government spent $100 million on commissions and fees for Liberal-friendly advertising agencies in Quebec. The agencies were involved in a program to promote Canada in the wake of the 1995 Quebec referendum. Fraser said some money was paid out at times with no work actually done. But despite the scandal, all signs point to Martin calling a spring election. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien coasted to a majority government in 2000, winning 172 out of 301 seats. Current standings in the House of Commons are Liberals 169, Conservatives 73, Bloc Québécois 33, NDP, 14 with nine independents. Three seats are vacant.Federal legislation is expected to be passed that will redistribute seats as of April, giving Ontario three new ridings, with British Columbia and Alberta getting two more each, bringing the Commons seat total to 308. The Liberals still hold a solid lead in vote-rich Ontario, with 47 per cent voter support. In contrast, the Conservatives have 36 per cent and the NDP have 15 per cent. Two per cent fell in the "other" category. But Graves said the merger of the old federal Progressive Conservative Party with the Canadian Alliance means the Liberals may not win as many ridings in Ontario as they have in recent elections because of vote-splitting among right-wing voters. "Ontario remains fertile ground for the Liberals, but it's looking to be much more competitive than in recent elections." And the scandal has sharply changed the outlook in Martin's home province of Quebec, where the Liberals now hold 37 of 75 Commons seats.Liberal support is now at 38 per cent, while the sovereignist Bloc Québécois are enjoying a surprising resurgence with 40 per cent support. For a year, EKOS polling in Quebec had the "sovereignty movement moribund and the Bloc in a near-death experience," Graves said. "All of a sudden, you have the Bloc leading. Martin still does well but he's relatively tarnished. "This is a remarkable and damaging turnaround for the Liberals." Still, with voter support at 42 per cent, the Liberals could win the next election and even gain a majority. In the 2000 election, Chrétien led his party to a majority win with 41 per cent of the vote. But, given the unusual volatility among the electorate as a result of the current scandal, the Liberals would have little room for error on the hustings."I think they would probably get a majority but it's not a sure thing," Graves said. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the scandal will have a negative impact on the Liberal government, with 40 per cent saying it was the worst scandal they can remember or worse than other government scandals. However, 52 per cent said the fiasco in the $250 million sponsorship program was "bad" but "no worse than other government scandals." A majority of respondents said they still believe the Liberals will win the next election, but on another question, 54 per cent said they believe the next federal party to take power in Ottawa will do so with a minority government. Asked in another question if a minority government would be "a good thing," 54 per cent said yes. More than half of voters say social issues like health and education will be the most important issues in the next election, while 19 per cent say the economy and jobs should take precedence and 18 per cent ranked "ethics and accountability" as the most important election issue. The importance of social issues may help Martin and the Liberals overcome the negative impact of the sponsorship scandal, Graves said. "If you want to find one key for the Liberals, it may well be public health care. That may well be the ideal Liberal wedge issue for the upcoming campaign." This may be particularly true in Ontario, where 49 per cent of voters ranked social issues as most important for the election.Other findings:More than 76 per cent said they "clearly" or "vaguely" recall hearing something about the sponsorship scandal. The NDP has replaced the Liberals as the most popular "second choice" among voters. Voters say the Conservatives would be the most effective opposition party in Parliament, followed by the NDP and then the Liberals. Looking across the country, the Liberals hold the lead in British Columbia, with 44 per cent support vs. 27 per cent for the Conservatives. But in Alberta, the Conservatives hold a strong lead, with 63 per cent support. The Liberals and Conservatives are virtually tied in Atlantic Canada while the Prairies (Saskatchewan and Manitoba) are witnessing a three-way race between the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP.