Election Stakes in Ontario

It was the kind of evening that might have saved Preston Manning's job. Last week, a blue-chip crowd of about 1,800 turned out at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to take a reading of the Reform party leader's successor, Stockwell Day of the Canadian Alliance. In the process, they forked out $1.

Election Stakes in Ontario

It was the kind of evening that might have saved Preston Manning's job. Last week, a blue-chip crowd of about 1,800 turned out at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to take a reading of the Reform party leader's successor, Stockwell Day of the Canadian Alliance. In the process, they forked out $1.7 million, advertised as a record for a federal fund-raiser. The audience included a smattering of Bay Street's elite: executives from RBC Dominion Securities, CIBC, Bell Canada, Sun Life, Manulife Financial, Molson, Magna, Nortel, corporate lawyers and stockbrokers, plus four Ontario Tory cabinet ministers. No doubt many will ante up for the Liberals' Jean Chrétien and even Conservative party Leader Joe Clark when they come calling. But the fact that they dug deep for Day - as much as $25,000 for a table of 10 - gave the western-based party reason to hope it had finally arrived as a contender in Ontario. "I'm astounded and a little overwhelmed," said Rod Love, the Alliance's campaign director. "Look at the room, look at the crowd, look at the money, just look at this."

Alliance strategists know Ontario cannot be won in one night. And the following day, they were back at work putting the finishing touches on their campaign for the election that Chrétien was widely expected to call on Sunday for Nov. 27. Day is planning to spend considerable time in the province. The party chose Kitchener in southwestern Ontario to launch its election platform earlier this month, and his schedule has him touring extensively. To demonstrate his Ontario roots, Day took special care to mention during his Toronto speech last week that he grew up in the province. "Ontario is the battleground," says Phil von Finckenstein, Day's spokesman. "We're going there a lot."

The cold arithmetic dictates that the Alliance is going nowhere without making a serious run in the province, which accounts for 103 of Parliament's 301 seats (of those, the Liberals hold 101). If, as appears unlikely, the Conservatives, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois can hold their current strength, the Alliance would need upwards of 15 seats in Ontario just to deny the Liberals their third consecutive majority. For the Alliance to win a minority government, it must lay claim to 40 Ontario seats, at a minimum. They are nowhere near attaining that goal now. Markham MP Jim Jones, who became the Alliance's only Ontario caucus member when he deserted the Tories last month, won't even predict he will deliver his own northern Toronto riding to his adopted party. "Right now, I'd say success for us is 15 seats in Ontario," he told Maclean's.

At this point, polls show even that would be a major coup. The most rosy of the recent opinion surveys, a COMPAS poll released in mid-October, puts the Alliance at 24 per cent in the province, 30 points behind the Liberals. If those numbers hold, they translate into another massive Liberal sweep of Ontario. COMPAS pollster Conrad Winn says better news for the Alliance can be found in "the iceberg below the surface." Only 22 per cent of respondents ruled out voting for the Alliance, the same number who said they would not vote Liberal. And when asked who "seems most like a prime minister," respondents ranked Day second to Chrétien. No one else, not even onetime prime minister Clark, came close. "The old Reform was often identified by voters as the party they would never vote for," Winn says. "This is not the case with the Alliance, so it's a major sea change in voter attitudes." Still, the Ottawa pollster gives the party little chance of forming a government.

Senior Alliance officials acknowledge their polling is turning up the same numbers. Nevertheless, MP Jason Kenney, the party's campaign co-chair, insists no one is thinking of second place. "We're starting from behind, but the Liberals historically underperform during campaigns," he says, noting how Chrétien saw his huge lead melt away during the 1997 election. For inspiration, Kenney looks to the Mike Harris election in 1995, when the Ontario Tories entered the campaign badly trailing Lyn McLeod's Liberals. Kenney believes the Alliance should be competitive in the 59 seats Harris won in the 1999 election, particularly in suburban and rural Ontario, small-c conservative districts where the Alliance's law-and-order message, opposition to gun registration and Day's family values beliefs most resonate.

A number of things must go right for the Alliance to break out from its western fortress, however. Conservative voters, who have deserted Clark and appear to be parking their support with the Liberals or in the undecided column, must come onboard in droves. Fatigue with Chrétien must build to the point that current Liberal supporters will turn to Day as the new generation leader for the 21st century. Day, who has never waged a national campaign, will have to prove he is ready for prime time. Finally, says Love, "We need a little luck."

Fortune certainly smiled on the Alliance last week, when the Liberals made a few missteps. Even Paul Martin's five-year, $100-billion tax-cut plan announced in his mini-budget gave rise to charges the Liberals are trying to bribe Canadians with their own money, while adding credibility to the Alliance's own plans to chop $125 billion from the tax rolls. The week culminated with the Prime Minister being caught on tape tersely telling a Toronto Star reporter in the lobby of the House to "get out of my way." Observers said the look in Chrétien's eye reminded them of his expression when he throttled a heckler in a 1996 Flag Day confrontation in Hull, Que. "We need the Prime Minister to act like he did all week," gloated Love, "an arrogant, out-of-touch, dismissive guy. We need Jean Chrétien to be Jean Chrétien for the next five weeks."

The Alliance's biggest worry is that they will run out of time. Despite the fact Day dared Chrétien to call an election when Parliament resumed in September, party strategists say they would have much preferred a spring vote. Day has been the leader of a national party for only four months, and the Alliance had banked on a further six to establish him as a credible leader of the country. Jones said Day "needs time to eliminate the innuendo and accusations" that he is a right-wing extremist and intolerant fundamentalist Christian. "The Liberals don't want to give Canadians a chance to know Day," Jones added. "That's why there's an election now." For Day, the challenge is to turn an election designed to catch him off guard into one in which he captures Canadians' imaginations.

Maclean's October 30, 2000