Sun 1 May 2005
Even with recent polls indicating the Conservatives have lost the electoral advantage they enjoyed two weeks ago, it seems that Stephen Harper still wants an early election and Paul Martin would prefer to go to the people at a later time.
Considering that these two individual’s electoral interests are diametrically opposed, we should assume their assessments of their fortunes are identical — Harper thinks his chances of winning are greater, sooner rather than later, and so does Martin.
What both men know is that the corruption issue cannot be sustain as the principle antecedent of voting intention for any length of time.
“Event driven” concerns like these tend to fade over time, invariably to be replaced by more enduring issues such as health care, the economy as so on. Harper therefore wants to capitalize on the incendiary testimony of Jean Brault and Chuck Guite by precipitating an election in the next three weeks and Martin is buying time in the hopes that these memories will fade.
As they pursue their respective strategies apace, what they may not be taking into full account is how much the current climate of voter cynicism works against both men’s plans.
Almost 70% of Canadians report that they do not believe there is any difference in the ethical standards of the political parties. Fair or not, simply by dint of being a politician, Harper is tarred with the same brush of sleaze. If he is counting on defeating the Liberals exclusively on the corruption issue — whether earlier or later –he is going to have paddle against this torrent of doubt about his own virtue. Add to this the fact — and notwithstanding his many efforts to beat back and stifle the musings of the more extremist views of his fellow Conservatives — that over 60% of the population still believes he harbours a “hidden agenda” and will bring forward measures, if elected, that he is not prepared to run on, while a candidate. Indeed, if there has been a pattern to current polling trends, it is that every time a significant percentage of voters consider abandoning their historic choice and take a closer look at the alternative, they find the Conservatives wanting and gravitate back to their nature Liberal home.
Martin and his advisors are counting not only on fading memories, but also the power of the “natural governing party’s” brand. For as long as I have been polling, the Liberals have been viewed by a majority of Canadians as the best able represent Canada is international affairs, the best managers, the most competent, the most likely to hold values that “reflect your own” etc — in short to possess virtually all the essential attributes associated with voting preference.
Today however, Canadians refuse to extend the benefit of the doubt to their Prime Minister, almost no matter what his utterances. They do not believe he was uninvolved in the sponsorship scandal; they interpret his apologies as political desperation rather than contrition; and hold him accountable for the actions of his Party even if the misdeeds were only perpetrated by the few. In a nut, his brand has been indelibly stained. In the current environment, “None” rather than “The Liberals” is more likely to be chosen by voters as “the party most likely to reflect your own values”. To run a campaign on little more than “look at how bad/ scary/ wanting/ whatever the other guy is” will only turn the spotlight on Martin’s and the Liberal’s own shortcomings.
Within this context, if either man thinks he can win the next election — now or in the future — based on their current craven strategies, they will be sorely disappointed on election day. We live in a very different political climate today. Assuming what worked in the past will work in the future is the surest route to electoral defeat.