Liberals lose support on security issue

IN HINDSIGHT, the Chrétien government was politically astute to rush the main pieces of its public security agenda to Parliament before it adjourned for the Christmas break.

As a Toronto Star/SRC/La Presse poll reveals, the single-minded focus on security that has overtaken the government since Sept. 11 is increasingly out of synch with the Canadian public.

That includes the made-for-the-USA budget brought down on Monday, just as the Commons was winding down for a six-week adjournment.

The fact that the budget will likely be eclipsed by more current events by the time MPs come back at the end of January should suit the government just fine.

As Ekos found, the more Canadians learn about the latest budget, the less comfortable they become with its overriding security purpose.

Over the first three nights following its presentation, the approval rating of the budget declined steadily. A few hours after it was brought down on Monday, 35 per cent of respondents thought it would have a positive impact on the country. But by Wednesday night, the proportion of those who felt good about the budget had fallen to 26 per cent.

That only confirms what the government, itself, had to know. Trying to sell that kind of budget to Canadians is a bit like peddling suntan lotion in a monsoon. The whole exercise inspires more indifference than annoyance and a lot more of those two feelings combined than excitement.

For, in the cold light of the three-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 events, Canadians have come to feel that they are not on the front line of the terrorism battle. And, while there is still a consensus that action is in order, for the sake of solidarity with the United States, there are signs that patience with the diversion of government resources to a single front may be wearing thin.

Thus, if Canadians had drafted the latest Martin budget, they would have focused on the social and economic health of the country instead of its security apparatus.

Still, so far, the Liberals have been remarkably successful in moving forward with an agenda driven by the country's political and physical geography rather than by the public's deeply felt priorities.

It remains to be seen whether, in the months and years to come, the government's investment in security will pay off enough trade-wise to make up for its sharply reduced fiscal margin of manoeuvre.

Still, those warning signs are, for now, more akin to the beep of a battery slowly going out in a fire detector than to a full-fledged alarm.

As the poll shows, Canadians are in a remarkably upbeat mood. Even as they overwhelmingly agree that the country is in a recession, they remain tremendously optimistic about long-term prospects.

And if the current Liberal agenda is at odds with the public, that of the opposition is apparently even more so.

A year after the last federal election, voters are more rather than less united behind Chrétien's party. The Liberals lead in every region of the country. Alberta is the only province where there is anything close to a race, with the Tories nipping at their heels for first place.

Even as Quebecers remain more skeptical of the anti-terrorism agenda than other Canadians, support for the government is now higher there than in Ontario, with the Liberals leading the Bloc Québécois by more than 20 points.

The Clark Tories are in second place overall, but that's only because somebody has to be Number 2. At 16 per cent, they are not in the same ballpark as the Liberals and remain below the level of support that allowed them to win only two seats in 1993.

Nor has staking out the dove position on the response to the terrorist attacks done much for the NDP. Its support is only barely in double-digits territory.

Moreover, the minority of Canadians who are unhappy with the government's handling of post-Sept. 11 affairs, tend to feel that the Liberals are not hawkish enough, rather than the opposite.

But the more ominous findings of the poll are those that pertain to the Canadian Alliance. They should be food for thought for Stockwell Day as he gets a last chance to chew over his plan to run for his old job.

Day may feel he has redeemed himself as a political presence since Sept. 11, but few Canadians are of the same persuasion.

The Canadian Alliance has now disappeared from the radar screen of central Canada. With its upcoming leadership campaign set to unfold as the Ontario Tories are preoccupied with their own succession fight, and with only Alberta candidates lining up to do battle for Alliance hearts and minds, it's hard to see how it will improve matters.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. She can be reached at [email protected]

Legal Notice:- Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved. Distribution, transmission or republication of any material from is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. For information please contact us or send email to [email protected].