Tories may lose next election, poll suggests
Governing party trails Liberals by 20 percentage points in 905 ridings
By Theresa Boyle
Queen's Park Bureau
Premier Mike Harris is facing the prospect that he could lose the next provincial election, expected in less than two years, a major new public opinion poll shows.

And the survey also shows Ontario voters are increasingly indicating they no longer trust Harris, with his trust level at its lowest point since he became premier in 1995.

Most worrisome for Harris, the poll found the Conservatives trailing the Liberals under leader Dalton McGuinty by a whopping 20-percentage points in the crucial 905 belt. The Tories consider the 905 area to be the strongest region of support for Harris. In the last election in 1999, the Tories routed the Liberals in the region.

''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.

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. The results are virtually unchanged from polls done over the last 18 months.

Some 20 per cent of those surveyed said they are undecided. 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.

Specifically, the Liberals have sustained their huge lead over the Tories for well over a year; the increasing lack of voter confidence in Harris; and a dramatic shift by voters to now blame Harris for the crisis in health care instead of pointing the finger at Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

Trust in Harris has sunk so low that he ranks ahead of only Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day in terms of low trust figures among nationally recognized political leaders.

The trust numbers are in steady and serious decline, the poll shows. Harris is now highly trusted by barely 31 per cent of decided voters, down from 40 per cent in January, 1999.

''If we want to have a worse count than Mike Harris, we have to look at Stockwell Day,'' EKOS senior director Christian Boucher said, noting the Alliance leader is highly trusted by only 10 per cent of decided voters.

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, 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,'' he said.

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 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 in stark contrast to those obtained in a similar survey two years ago.

''The advantage the Ontario Conservatives had was extremely high,'' Boucher said of the earlier poll, noting the party had a 15-point advantage. ''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,'' he 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 town's tainted water tragedy that left seven people dead and made 2,300 sick.

''It wasn't a story where the Conservatives scored points,'' Boucher said.

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 NDP.

And for voters aged 65 and over, 44 back the Tories, 43 per cent the Liberals, and 10 per cent 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. People don't think it's an extremely relevant party,'' Boucher said.

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.

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