Ethics storm won't end Liberal dominance
Chantal Hebert

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 politicians.

But the poll also shows that Chrétien still has the means to remedy the problem.

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 gesture.

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 public.

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 challenged.

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 Constitution.

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 success.

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