|The provincial Progressive Conservatives face the prospect of losing the next election, with confidence in Mike Harris at its lowest level since he became premier in 1995, a new poll shows.
Harris is now highly trusted by barely 30 per cent of decided voters, down from 40 per cent in January, 1999.
Adding to Harris' worries, the poll found the Conservatives trailing the Liberals under leader Dalton McGuinty by a whopping 20 percentage points in the crucial 905 belt around Toronto.
In the 1999 election, the Tories routed the Liberals in the region.
In Toronto, The Tories trail the Liberals by 34 percentage points.
``There are increasing signs that Harris will be deposed in the next election,'' said Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates.
``The Tories have reason for serious concern'' about their re-election chances, he added.
The Toronto Star/CBC/La Presse poll, conducted by EKOS, shows the Liberals with 50.4 per cent support, the Conservatives with 35.2 per cent, and the New Democrats with 9.5 per cent.
Those results are virtually unchanged from polls done over the last 18 months.
Some 20 per cent of those surveyed said they are undecided about who they'd vote for. The poll is based on telephone interviews with 889 Ontario voters from July 26 to Aug. 29. The poll is considered accurate within 3.3 percentage points 19 times out of 20.
Harris should be worried for several key reasons, Graves said.
The Liberals have sustained their huge lead over the Tories for well over a year, voters increasingly distrust Harris and they are now blaming him rather than Prime Minister Jean Chrétien for the crisis in health care, he said.
The poll shows the Liberals have maintained an advantage of approximately 15 points over the Tories for some 18 months.
It will be extremely difficult, but not impossible, for the Conservatives to close the gap before the next election, expected in 2003, EKOS senior director Christian Boucher said.
``It's obviously a significant gap and it will be difficult for the Harris government to close that gap. But it doesn't mean that it's game over for the Harris government,'' Boucher added.
The Tories like to comfort themselves with the knowledge that mid-term polls are usually bad news for governing parties.
And while Boucher acknowledged that is true, he said the gaps in such polls are usually much smaller.
On health care, 60 per cent of Ontarians continue to believe service in this sector is declining, and they now blame Harris rather than Chrétien for it.
Graves attributed the decline in ``trust'' numbers for Harris on the Premier's musings about privatization of health care.
Harris has likely misread polls that say Ontarians are open to wide-scale private health care, he said.
The poll found 30 per cent have high trust in Harris, 18 per cent have moderate trust while 51 per cent have low trust.
By comparison, the poll found that nationally 45 per cent have high trust in Chrétien, while 17 per cent have moderate trust.
The poll didn't measure trust in McGuinty.
The poll shows Harris is in trouble in all regions of the province and is lagging behind McGuinty with a 34-point gap in Toronto and a 20-point gap in the critical 905 region.
The polling results for the 905 area code are a reversal in fortunes for the two major parties.
``The advantage the Ontario Conservatives had (in the 905 area) was extremely high,'' Boucher said.
``Now what we're seeing is basically the reverse.''
Voters are suffering from ``PC fatigue,'' he said.
``People are perhaps tired of the neo-conservative policies and the reforms that were made in some of the key sectors,'' Boucher explained, citing health care, education and the environment.
High on respondents' minds at the time was Harris' June appearance before the Walkerton inquiry which probed the community's tainted water tragedy that left seven people dead and made 2,300 sick in May, 2000.
During his testimony, Harris repeatedly denied that he was aware of the risks to public health when, to save money, his government dismantled policies protecting local water.
``It wasn't a story where the Conservatives scored points,'' Boucher said.
The EKOS poll showed that women and young people are two-to-three times more likely to support the Liberals than the Tories.
``Women are extremely angry at the Conservatives,'' Boucher said.
Some 55 per cent of female respondents rated their trust in Harris as ``low.'' For men, that number was 47 per cent.
For voters aged 25 and under, 62 per cent support the Liberals while 23 per cent back the Tories and 6 per cent the New Democratic Party.
And for voters aged 65 and over, 44 per cent back the Tories, 43 per cent support the Liberals, and 10 per cent back the NDP.
The poll results show that the NDP has the support of 9.5 per cent of decided voters, revealing a small but steady decline from 14 per cent in May, 1999.
``It's not a positive trend for the NDP. It's not a party that has a strong provincial presence,'' Boucher said.
``People don't think it's an extremely relevant party.''
``(NDP leader Howard) Hampton is not the most charismatic leader, but at the same time there's some problems with the party's platform,'' he added.
`It's obviously a significant gap and it will be difficult for the Harris government to close that gap. But it doesn't mean that it's game over for the Harris government.'
|Senior director, EKOS Research Associates |