Scandals May Delay 2004 Election

IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS: winning more than half of the 308 House of Commons seats that will be up for grabs in the next election.

Scandals May Delay 2004 Election

IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS: winning more than half of the 308 House of Commons seats that will be up for grabs in the next election. Under Prime Minister Paul MARTIN, most Liberals thought their next majority was in the bag, as poll after poll confirmed that only the magnitude of the landslide was in doubt. But that was before "scandal" and "corruption" became the most repeated words on Parliament Hill - quickly turning those numbers not just sour, but downright toxic. According to an analysis done for Maclean's by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, at Wilfrid Laurier University, polls conducted just after the sponsorship affair exploded translate into only 149 seats for the Liberals. That would be a humbling minority, far below the 172-seat majority they won in the 2000 election, and a pale shadow of the 213 MPs the party was on track to bring to Parliament based on voter preference surveys done before the auditor general ignited the controversy with her Feb. 10 report.

To many outside observers, the Liberals' crash in the polls turned a spring election from a near certainty into a long shot. "It would be the ultimate gamble," warned Darrell Bricker, president of Ipsos-Reid, the polling firm that pegged Liberal support at 35 per cent after the scandal, compared to 48 per cent before it. Yet among the government MPs who would be putting their jobs on the line, sentiment has not swung decisively against a possible May election date. "Canadians ought to be able to express their opinion about a new leader and a new direction in government, and we should let them do it as early as possible," said Andy Savoy, the New Brunswick MP who, as chairman of the Liberal caucus, acts as a key conduit of backbench opinion to the Prime Minister. "That's my instinct," Savoy added, "but it's not my call." The man whose call it is, Martin, isn't saying - though he has certainly been looking like a politician in campaign mode.

Radio talk shows, both national and local. Television interviews. Appearances in key regions and ridings. And, despite all the roaming around, a dominant role in Question Period. It was a far more in-your-face Martin than Canadians are used to seeing. The danger was that he might spend too much of his precious political capital - all the triple-A-rated credibility that accrued to him as Jean CHRÉTIEN's deficit-busting finance minister - in a no-win damage control exercise. The upside was that by the sheer quantity of personal exposure, Martin might succeed in putting across the message that he had nothing to hide. Whether many voters were in a mood to see it that way remains to be seen. Inside Liberal ranks, though, some who were not counted as Martin fans appeared to be won over by his willingness to personally bear the brunt of public outrage. "He's inspired me," said Toronto MP Sarmite Bulte, one of the few MPs who staunchly supported Sheila Copps against Martin in last year's leadership race. "He gives me courage."

Still, Bulte admitted not everybody finds his road show so inspiring. "The fact is, we have a new prime minister who is willing to put his integrity on the line, and yet it doesn't seem to be working," she said. "I just don't understand why this new style of governing is being met with such derision." One reason may be that the gutsy performance Martin is putting on is bound to be overshadowed - at least for a while - by the dispiriting facts of the case. Auditor general Sheila Fraser looked into $250 million spent on federal government sponsorships between 1997 and 2003, mostly in Quebec, and found that over $100 million was paid in fees and commissions to Liberal-friendly advertising and communications firms, often for little or nothing, and with dubious paperwork.

As disturbing as this affair is on its own, Bricker says the damage is compounded when many Canadians lump it in with past Liberal scandals and boondoggles - from the gun registry gone hundreds of millions over budget, to the mismanagement of jobs grants at the former human resources department. Perhaps it's that cumulative fiasco-fatigue that caused polled Liberal support to drop faster than Canadian public opinion experts say they've ever seen outside the period of an election campaign, when political preferences tend to be more in flux.

The trick for Martin is to make his response in this case so aggressive that voters will believe the pattern has been broken. In fact, he has set so many investigations, inquiries and probes in motion that keeping track of them all is a challenge. There are now no less than four major lines of attack:

- A public inquiry headed by John Gomery, a Quebec judge who will have all the time he wants to look into every aspect of the scandal, is expected to commence within the next few weeks. Interim reports from Gomery are a possibility, which means some early findings could be made public before or even during a spring campaign, though his final report is likely to take much longer to complete.

- Hearings by the House public accounts committee, chaired by Conservative MP John Williams, have already begun. The MPs' ability to peer into any links between the scandal and the upper echelons of the Chrétien government got an unexpected boost last week, when ChrÄtien agreed to a request from Martin's office to have cabinet documents dealing with the sponsorships unsealed for the committee - records that would normally have been kept secret for decades.

- Montreal lawyer André Gauthier has been hired as "special counsel" to try to recover money improperly paid out under the sponsorship scheme. He is expected to sort out where sponsorship funds flowed inside the often complicated financial structures of advertising and communications firms that collected millions - the sort of follow-the-money details the House committee and Gomery's inquiry might lack the expertise to uncover.

- Police are investigating possible criminal wrongdoing related to the sponsorship program. Last September, the RCMP charged Paul Coffin, chairman of Montreal-based Communication Coffin, with 18 counts of fraud related to about $2 million paid under the sponsorship program. Coffin pleaded not guilty. "I think it's reasonable to assume," said Public Works Minister Stephen Owen last week, "that given the information that's being passed to the RCMP and the Quebec police, there will be more charges coming."

The prospects for a spring election depend largely on what these four processes produce over just the next few weeks. More charges that show the guilty are being caught, new revelations that put distance between Martin's team and the scandal's bad odour, even token amounts of taxpayers' money recovered - any of these developments would make an early election call all the more probable. Certainly, Martin has left the possibility squarely on the table, saying in a New Westminister, B.C., radio interview on Feb. 19 that he wouldn't wait until Gomery finished his work - only long enough that "people are pretty sure of the direction the inquiry is taking."

So he's leaving his options wide open - even if many see him as backed into a corner. Bricker says deciding to go this spring, so soon after taking a public-opinion pummelling, would be the mark of a politician who trusts his gut more than he frets about the numbers. "It would defy conventional wisdom," he said. Still, Ontario's Mike Harris called a provincial election in 1999 even though he was trailing in the polls - and kept his majority. Chrétien rolled the dice the next year, despite warnings that voters would punish him for calling them to the polls well before his traditional four-year mandate was up - and he won big, too. "Is Martin really that kind of guy?" Bricker asked skeptically. Political gambler sure wasn't the way Canadians saw him during the long years when he personified fiscal prudence. But then this scandal has already showed a new side of Martin, a willingness - almost an eagerness - to wade into adversity up to his neck. Maybe he's got more of the same in store.

A Liberal Minority in the Making?

According to the latest polls, here's how the parties would fare:

Seats won in 2000 Pre-scandal poll wins Post-scandal poll wins

Liberals 172 213 149

Conservatives 78* 47 85

NDP 13 15 21

Bloc 38 33 53

Based on the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy's regional swing model. Pre-scanadl polls include Compas and Léger & Léger results from January. Post-scandal polls blends two Ipsos-Reid polls conducted after the release of the auditor general's report on the federal sponsorship program.

*Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance combined

Measuring Scandal in Dollars and Cents

The auditor general's damning report said that more than $100 million in government funds had been misspent in the sponsorship scandal. But what's $100 million? It's:

- the cost of 615 average Canadian houses

- the amount the median Canadian family would earn after 1,818 years of income

- 12.7 years' worth of compensation for Toronto-Dominion Bank CEO Ed Clark

- the approximate total value of Conrad Black's homes in London, Palm Beach, New York City and Toronto

- the cost of a movie and soda for every Quebecer (popcorn extra)

Sources: Statistics Canada, Maclean's, Toronto-Dominion Bank

Maclean's March 1, 2004