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The Canadian General Election of 1997

The Canadian General Election of 1997

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The Canadian General Election of 1997

462 pages
17 heures
Oct 1, 1997


The General Election of 1997 did not turn out as Jean Chretien and the Liberal Party had planned. Chretien called an early election, believing that his party was in a position to retain the majority they had won in 1993. They got their majority, but just barely.

When the campaign began, the focus for many Canadians was the economy and job creation. National unity, however, quickly became a key issue, and triggered the most heated debates of the campaign.

As was the case in 1993, the election of 1997 saw the country divided along regional lines. The Bloc Quebecois remained strong in Quebec, while the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats dominated the maritime provinces. The Reform Party, meanwhile, won the west in a landslide, becoming the Official Opposition for the first time. It was Ontario, however, where the election was won: the Liberals won all but two seats in Canada's largest province, and in the end that was enough to carry Jean Chretien to victory.

The Canadian General Election of 1997 is a study of the key aspects of the campaign and the election itself. In addition to analyzing each party's campaign, authors examine the role of the media, pollsters, the electoral system, and the voters. Articles are contributed by some of the best-known political writers in Canada today: Anthony Westell, Stephen Clarkson, Peter Woolstencroft, Alan Whitehorn, Keith Archer, Faron Ellis, AndrÈ Bernard, Chris Dornan, Ed Greenspon, Michael Marzolini, and Louis Massicotte. This readable volume will appeal to an academic as well as a general readership, and is ideally suited for libraries and political science courses. New to this year's volume is a post-election survey by Jon Pammett.

Oct 1, 1997

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The Canadian General Election of 1997 - Dundurn

The Canadian General Election of 1997

The Canadian General Election of 1997

Edited by

Alan Frizzell and Jon H. Pammett

This compilation copyright © 1997 by Alan Frizzell and Jon H. Pammett Copyright for each essay remains with its author.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise (except for brief passages for purposes of review) without the prior permission of Dundurn Press Limited. Permission to photocopy should be requested from the Canadian Reprography Collective.

Designer: Scott Reid

Printer: Webcom Limited

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

The Canadian general election of 1997

ISBN 1-55002-300-4

1. Canada. Parliament — Elections, 1997. I. Frizzell,

Alan, 1947–.II. Pammett, Jon H., 1944–.

FC635.C366 1997324.971’0648C97-931775-4

F1034.2.C366 1997


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. We also acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Book Publishing Industry Development Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Care has been taken to trace the ownership of copyright material used in this book. The author and the publisher welcome any information enabling them to rectify any references or credit in subsequent editions.

Printed and bound in Canada.

Printed on recycled paper.

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1. Setting the Stage

by Anthony Westell

2. Following the Trail of Campaign ‘97

by Edward Greenspon

3. Securing Their Future Together: The Liberals in Action

by Stephen Clarkson

4. On the Ropes Again?: The Campaign of the Progressive Conservative Party in the 1997 Federal Election

by Peter Woolstencroft

5. Alexa McDonough and Atlantic Breakthrough for the New Democratic Party

by Alan Whitehorn

6. Reform at the Crossroads

by Faron Ellis and Keith Archer

7. The Bloc Québécois

by André Bernard

8. The Television Coverage: A History of the Election in 65 Seconds

by Christopher Dornan

9. Electoral Reform in the Charter Era

by Louis Massicotte

10. The Regionalization of Canadian Electoral Politics

by Michael Marzolini

11. The Leaders’ Debates: (…And the Winner is…)

by Lawrence LeDuc

12. The Voters Decide

by Jon H. Pammett

Appendix: The Results


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

The familiar lines from Charles Dickens appear to sum up the situation for all of the Canadian political parties in the general election of June 2, 1997. They won some, but they lost some. They accomplished some of their objectives, but fell short in others.

The Liberal Party of Canada had returned to power in 1993 after a decade on the opposition benches. They had won a solid majority of 29 seats in the House of Commons, and had been relatively unscathed by subsequent attacks from a divided and scattered opposition. The ineffectiveness of all the opposition parties led to the general expectation that the Liberals would win a 1997 election handily, almost by default. They had received substantial (if at times grudging) praise for their performance in government and their ability to cut spending and reduce the deficit. They were the only party with credible claims to be a national party, supported in all areas of the country. The only question remaining about an election triumph for them was when?

The Liberal Party’s own answer to this question turned out to be sooner rather than later. Whether because the party’s strategists were apprehensive about the potential situation later in the year, or just anxious to get the inevitable over with, they opted for a June election, only three-and-one-half years after their 1993 victory. Despite their eagerness for the election, however, the Liberals appeared disorganized. They mounted a shaky campaign which was light on specific issues and weak in leadership, and almost parleyed their majority government status into a minority, something most observers at the outset of the campaign thought was almost impossible.

All of the other parties could point to successful aspects of their campaigns. The New Democratic Party was able to make gains by improving their appeal to women and to the disadvantaged Atlantic region of the country. They did this through establishing their campaign issues of the need for government job creation, and the imperative of saving social programs from further budget cutting. The Progressive Conservative Party established their leader, Jean Charest, as the most popular federal leader in the country, and staked out a moderate position on the national unity/Quebec issue by championing distinct society status for that province. The Reform Party consolidated their Western base of support by branching out from their usual emphasis on economic issues like deficit reduction and tax cuts, and established themselves as the hard-line voice of English Canada toward Quebec separatism. The Bloc Québécois reinforced their status as the voice of Quebec in Ottawa and held on to the bulk of their support.

But just as all parties could claim some successes, all had prominent failures in their campaigns. The New Democratic Party failed to make any headway in recovering a presence in Ontario, lost ground in the West to Reform, and generally had a difficult time persuading voters they were major players in the political game nationwide. The Conservatives, despite a brief surge as a result of the victory of Jean Charest in the leaders’ debates, did not establish themselves as the national opposition they desperately wanted to become; their seats are concentrated in the Eastern part of the country. Likewise, Reform failed to become a national party, marginalizing itself in Ontario by its anti-Quebec message. The Bloc Québécois lost seats and votes, and fell out of Official Opposition status in the House of Commons.

In some ways, the 1997 election was a logical extension of the results of the 1993 election. That event had left the Liberals as the dominant national party, with representation from all parts of the country and a substantial majority in Parliament. The Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party formed regionally-based opposition groupings, which competed for the right to form the Official Opposition in Parliament. The other two parties, the New Democratic Party and the Progressive Conservatives, fared very badly in terms of legislative seats in 1993. The 1997 result, which saw those two parties compete to secure the representation rights to the Atlantic Region, seemed to fill in the main gap. Ontario, the large central region of the country, was the stronghold of the Liberal Party. Though the Liberals resisted attempts to brand them as a regional party as well, the numbers in 1997 began to look more and more like it.

As seems inevitable in any Canadian election in which regional appeals come heavily into play, the first-past-the-post electoral system came under scrutiny after the result was known. The Liberals won the 1997 election by getting only 38% of the vote nationwide, an all-time low for a majority government. In three previous elections, the Liberals had formed majority governments with 41% of the national vote. The first of these instances was in 1921, when the Progressives entered federal politics, capturing almost one-quarter of the vote. The second was in 1945, when the CCF emerged onto the national scene and cut into the vote totals for the two traditional parties. The third was in 1993.

The injustice of such a result, from the point of view of equality in the translation of votes into seats, did not escape the other parties. The opposition stressed the lack of a popular mandate with which the Liberals formed the new government. Even the Bloc Québécois, which itself has more seats than its overall vote total would justify, joined the chorus in contesting the government’s legitimacy. Academic speculation about the desirability of changing the electoral system to a more proportional model aside, however, the mechanics of the election result soon lost the attention of both the public and the political elites. It was politics-as-usual when Parliament resumed in September.

One disturbing result of the 1997 Canadian general election was the continuation of the downward slide in the voting turnout rate. Whereas the postwar norm has been for 75% of the voters to go to the polls in the average federal election, there was a sharp drop in 1993 to a turnout of only 70% of eligible voters. This time, the turnout rate slipped further, to 67% of eligible voters. As evidence in this book shows, even those people who did vote were less likely to be able to identify important issues in this election than had been the case in the recent past. And the accounts of the campaigns in this book are replete with evidence that the negative tone of many of the campaign attacks and advertisements was off-putting to many Canadians. It is conventional wisdom among political operatives that negative advertising works, even when people say they do not like it. However, this judgement appears to ignore the fact that it may produce an increasingly small pool of voters to work on. Champions of popular participation in Canadian public life have reason to be concerned with the conduct of the campaign of 1997.

However, those concerned solely with the results of elections may notice little change after the 1997 version from the situation after the previous election. The Liberal Party is still in office, albeit with a drastically reduced majority which is vulnerable to the three D’s — Death, Defection, and Defeat in by-elections. Across the floor of the House of Commons, they face a regionally splintered opposition once again, with a few differences. The lead questions will be coming from the West, rather than Quebec. And the criticism will be coming from expanded caucuses of four parties, all eager to jockey for position as the real opposition for the future. As Canadian politics enters the new millennium, the uncertainties multiply.


Setting the Stage

by Anthony Westell

The extraordinary election of 1993¹ not only restored the Liberal Party to power after nine years in opposition, but left it without an effective opposition in the House of Commons, and the electorate without a credible alternative government. The Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two seats and the New Democrats to nine, neither having official party status in the House. Two new regional parties took their places across the aisle from the government. The Bloc Québécois, a separatist party committed to taking Quebec out of Confederation, formed the Loyal Opposition with 54 seats, but obviously was not a government-in-waiting. The Reform Party, with support largely in the West, had 52 seats. Under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the Liberals could and did claim to be the only national party, and this gave the government an unusually free hand.

The devastating defeat of the Conservative government in 1993 was due in considerable measure to widespread dislike and distrust of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and to a succession of scandals that created the perception of an administration riddled with corruption which overshadowed its achievements. All this deepened the perennial public cynicism about politicians and their motives, a disturbing trend in many democracies in the 1990s. While still in opposition, Chrétien had expressed his concern about the loss of public confidence in Parliament and government, and promised in his election program — known as the Liberal Red Book — that in office he would govern in such a way as to restore the public trust. Indeed, the Red Book itself was presented as a contract with the voters — long before the US Republicans popularized the notion — setting out what the Liberals intended to do and for which they could be held accountable. Other measures, both symbolic and substantial, followed. Chrétien had for years crafted his own log-cabin image as an unpretentious li’l guy from a small town in Quebec — although in fact he had become a millionaire corporate lawyer — and he reinforced this when he and his wife Aline — his closest political partner and adviser — moved into the official home of the Prime Minister, 24 Sussex Drive, without the customary redecoration and with government-issue furnishings. Almost at once, he appointed as his adviser on ethical issues a reassuring pillar of the old Ottawa Establishment, Mitchell Sharp, who had been a senior civil servant when the Ottawa Mandarins were among the most respected people in the country, and who served as a Liberal Cabinet Minister when government was thought to do good things for all the people. Later, the position of Ethics Counsellor was created to help ministers avoid conflicts of interest, and a special Senate-Commons committee was asked to prepare a code of conduct for members of both Houses. Lobbyists who had seemed to run riot during the Mulroney years were reined in, and Chrétien eschewed the grand gestures and strategies favoured by Mulroney, offering instead pragmatic daily management. Action when necessary, but not necessarily action, could have been his watchword.

As the 1997 election approached, the Liberals claimed to have honoured some 80% of the promises in the Red Book, but the opposition parties and the media scorned the claim, pointing in particular to the government’s failure to get rid of the hated Goods and Services Tax imposed by the Mulroney Tories. But the overriding fact was that there had been a few indiscretions but no serious personal scandals involving Cabinet ministers during the three-and-half years of Chrétien’s first government. The Prime Minister himself was spotless and retained a high level of public approval. Whether this record made any real headway in restoring public trust in the democratic process remains to be seen, but public confidence in the Prime Minister — and the absence of a credible alternative — probably did assist his Cabinet to make radical changes in policies in the two dominant issues of Canadian politics, the economy and national unity, without suffering the level of angry cynicism that might have been expected.

The economy

The Liberals came to power acknowledging that the federal budget deficit was a serious problem, but were equally or even more concerned with unemployment and slow growth in the economy. Both Chrétien and his finance minister, Paul Martin, seemed inclined at first to believe that if they could stimulate the economy and create jobs, revenues would increase. This, combined with restraints on spending, would reduce the deficit to manageable proportions in three years. After all, the Liberals had promised during the election not austerity but a return to the good old days of full employment and social spending. For example, as soon as possible after taking office, they approved in partnership with the provinces and municipalities, a $6-billion public works program designed both to create jobs and, more importantly, to promote a feel-good atmosphere that would strengthen consumer confidence and spending. Deep spending cuts, they feared, would merely create a new recession and a fall in revenues. Fiscal reality began to take charge when Martin discovered that the 1993-4 deficit was going to be much higher than the previous government had forecast. Even so, he was cautious in his first budget, in February, 1944, making modest cuts in predictable areas such as defense and foreign aid, and closing tax loopholes. The challenge today is not rush, he said. The challenge is to get things right. The truth seems to be that he was still taking the measure of the problem and discovering that it was not in fact the deficit but the national debt that grew with every deficit, costing more in interest, leaving less for constructive spending, and threatening eventually if not national bankruptcy the humiliation of appealing to the International Monetary Fund for help.²

By October, when he updated his budget forecasts, Martin had become a committed crusader in the battle to eliminate the deficit, balance the budget, and then to begin to reduce the debt. His new view was that growing the economy would not create jobs and reduce the deficit; rather, reducing the deficit would grow the economy and create jobs. Cutting spending became for the next two years the dominant theme of the government, to the dismay of Liberals on the Left of the party and the relief of those on the Right. Ambitious plans for reform of the social security system were shelved, and fiscal transfers to the provinces for social programs were slashed — forcing the provincial governments to accept the unpopularity of actually cutting programs. As it happened, most of the provinces were themselves tackling deficits — some were ahead of Martin in the process — and the country itself was changing moods: what had been a Revolution of Rising Expectations in the 1970s, when there seemed no limit to growth and spending, had gradually gone into reverse and what might be called a Revolution in Falling Expectations was becoming the consensus. That is to say, Canadians were coming to accept that things would get worse before, if ever, they got better. And they were right. Freer trade was forcing many corporations to retrench and restructure; the Bank of Canada continued, in its view, to choke inflation, and in the view of critics to choke the whole economy. Unemployment, reducing which had once been the government’s priority, stood at 10.4% in its first year in office, 1994, and was still at 9.5% in May, 1997, just before the election. The number of the employed had only inched up, from 13,292,000 to 13,896,000. The worrisome problem of jobless youth actually became worse; among those aged 15 to 24, the unemployment rate rose from 16.5% in 1994 to 17.2 % (18% of males) in 1997. The average family income was falling, the gap between rich and poor widening, the number of beggars on the city streets increasing.

But by February 18, 1997, when Martin presented his fourth and preelection budget, he was ready to claim victory, give or take a few billions. Program spending had been cut by $16.5 billion, or almost 14%, during his watch on the Finance ministry, and the deficit for the year was forecast at $17 billion, down from $42 billion in 1993-4. It was expected to fall to $9 billion in 1998–9 at which point the government would need to do no new borrowing. In reality, Martin was being cautious and many financial observers were convinced that he would achieve his targets a year ahead of schedule. The combined deficit of all governments — federal, provincial and municipal — which had stood at 7.4% of Gross Domestic Product in 1992, twice the average of the other industrialized democracies in the G-7 group, was down to 1.3%, or half the average. While the proportion of debt to GDP remained high, it was declining for the first time since 1974, and was forecast to fall rapidly as the deficit disappeared. Writing a Report Card on the Liberals in the 1997 edition of the annual survey How Ottawa Spends, Editor Gene Swimmer, a professor in the School of Public Administration at Carleton University, gave them an A grade for their handing of the deficit which he found impressive by international as well as Canadian standards.³

Even better for the government, the economy was at last showing some vital signs, driven by exports to the growing U.S. economy, and optimists predicted the creation of 300,000 new jobs during the year. While on the eve of the election the country at large was still not feeling good about the economy, the deficit had been removed as an issue — of which the Reform Party had made much in 1993 — and Martin had become one of the most respected leaders in Canada. It was his legacy that all of a sudden politicians were talking not about cuts, but about how best to spend the surpluses when they began to appear in a year or two. Reduce taxes, increase spending, or pay down the debt? The Liberals, naturally, suggested a bit of all three — and were in a position where they might actually be able to make real the gauzy visions of 1993.

National unity

As Justice Minister in 1981, Chrétien played a key role in patriating the constitution from British safe keeping, and inserting into it a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But this was done over the objections of Quebec. As the provincial government at the time was formed by the Parti Québécois (PQ) which was intent on taking the province out of Confederation, it could be said, and was, that no constitutional settlement would have been acceptable. But the PQ was not alone in resisting the new constitution, and Quebec has not since signed on, although it is of course bound by it. One consequence was that Chrétien came to be seen by many of his fellow Quebeckers as some sort of traitor. When the Quebec Liberals returned to power in 1985 by defeating the PQ, they offered terms for a settlement. Prime Minister Mulroney jumped at the opportunity and succeeded in persuading all the provinces to agree to a deal, the Meech Lake Accord. Chrétien opposed the Accord which eventually failed to achieve ratification in provincial legislatures, and he was again seen in Quebec as opposing the interests of his own province. So when he became prime minister in 1993, he was widely popular in English-speaking Canada, but not in Quebec. In that province in fact, the big winner in the election was not Chrétien’s Liberals but the separatist Bloc Québécois which, as noted above, became, bizarrely, the Official Opposition in Ottawa.

None of this seemed to disturb Chrétien. He insisted that he had not been elected to talk about the constitution: Canadians, including Quebeckers, were fed up with it and wanted to focus on the economy. But the situation changed again in 1994 when Parti Québécois, under a hardline separatist, Jacques Parizeau, returned to power in Quebec and began planning for a referendum on separation. Chrétien remained sanguine because he was deeply convinced that his compatriots would never actually vote to leave Canada. The separatists seemed to have agreed because they decided not to offer a clear choice between remaining in Canada and becoming sovereign. The PQ, the BQ, and the minor Action Democratique party agreed instead, in June, 1995, to propose a new economic and political partnership between Canada and a sovereign Quebec, an outline of which was then debated and approved in the Quebec legislature, the National Assembly. This eventually gave rise to the referendum question which was something less than crystal clear: Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995.

Still Chrétien and his advisers remained confident that Quebeckers would vote No on referendum day, October 30. As the campaign began most of the polls supported that confidence, and the separatist campaign failed to gain momentum. The talk in Ottawa was of a repeat of the result of the 1980 referendum when 60% voted against separation. The tide began to turn when PQ Premier Parizeau, an able but arrogant and pompous figure in effect ceded the leadership of the failing separatist camp. Bouchard had had a curious career, first as a Liberal, and then as a minister in Mulroney’s Conservative government, from which he resigned in a dispute over the Meech Lake Accord to become a separatist and found the BQ. His strength was his oratory and his political style — a grandeur reminiscent of Charles de Gaulle. Bouchard infused the campaign with an emotional appeal to Quebec nationalism, and persuaded many Quebeckers that it was not really about separation and sovereignty, but about achieving a new status within Canada. No matter how often federalists said that there would be no new partnership, many, probably most, Quebeckers remained convinced that they could have both sovereignty and MPs in Ottawa, the Canadian dollar in their pockets, and a Canadian passport when they travelled abroad.

As support for the separatist proposition began to grow, and then took the lead in the polls, the Quebec Liberals leading the federalists increased their pressure on Ottawa for proposals they could offer Quebeckers as an alternative both to separation and to the status quo. Finally, Chrétien yielded, and in a speech in Verdun, Quebec, he promised constitutional recognition of Quebec as a distinct society within Canada, and that no changes in the constitution affecting Quebec would be made without its consent. These were significant concessions because they had been two of the key provisions in the Meech Lake Accord which Chrétien had helped to defeat.

Whether by coincidence or not, the polls then began to show a decline in support for the separatist option, and when the votes were counted Chrétien and the federalists scraped through with the barest of margins: 50.6% voted No to separation; 49.4% (including a majority of French-speaking Quebeckers) voted Yes.

Although Chrétien could claim to have won, he had shown himself to be out of touch with his own people, a prime minister without much honour in his own province. He was eager to redeem the promises he had made during the campaign, but even that proved difficult. There was strong opposition, particularly in the West, to recognizing Quebec as a distinct society — although in history, language, and culture it obviously was — because that would appear to give it a special status not enjoyed by other provinces, and if Quebec was to have a veto over constitutional change, the other provinces, or at least regions, would demand one also. It soon became apparent that Chrétien could not get the support of enough provinces to amend the constitution, and he was forced to act instead by way of a Parliamentary resolution which was no guarantee of change because it could of course be altered by a simple vote in any future Parliament.

This and other measures intended to conciliate Quebec became known as Plan A. Plan B was to make clear to Quebec that however the vote might go in a future referendum, separation would not be easy. The Throne Speech opening Parliament in February, 1996 declared that in the event of another referendum: The government will exercise its responsibility to ensure the debate is conducted with all the facts on the table, that the rules of the process are fair, that the consequences are clear, and that Canadians will have their say in the future of the country. How all this was to be resolved by a referendum initiated by the National Assembly of Quebec was not clear. Ottawa next asked the Supreme Court for a ruling on whether a unilateral declaration of independence would be legal. Chrétien repeated that a simple majority of 51% would not be enough to justify breaking up the country. And aboriginals in Quebec and others argued that in event of separation, they would want to remain part of Canada, envisaging the partition of the province.

Thus the unity issue which Chrétien had declared in 1993 to be dead was back, and near the top of the political agenda as the 1997 election approached. One result was to revive the Conservative and Reform parties. The new, young PC leader Jean Charest, had been one of the most effective campaigners against separatism during the referendum in his home province, in alliance with the Quebec and federal Liberals. In Quebec, he emerged as a spokesman for federalism and in the rest of Canada he had a new credibility as the leader of the party which had founded Canada and had always recognized Quebec’s special place in Confederation. On the other hand, Reform leader Preston Manning, Charest’s rival on the Right, had a new issue to replace the fiscal clothes stolen by Martin. He spoke primarily for the West in rejecting any sort of special status for Quebec, insisting that all provinces must be equal, but offering to devolve many Ottawa powers and programs to Quebec and the other provinces. It was this difference on constitutional policy that made impossible the union of the parties on the Right, Reform and Conservative, that many ideologues saw as a prerequisite to defeating the Liberals.

Meanwhile, the Official Opposition party, the Bloc Québécois, meanwhile, fell into disarray when Parizeau, having lost the referendum, resigned as Quebec Premier and was replaced by the man who had nearly won it for him, Lucien Bouchard, the founder and leader of the BQ. Recognizing that Quebec would not be willing to face another referendum for a few years, Bouchard settled down to build confidence in the future by showing he could provide good government, and the BQ in Ottawa drifted more or less leaderless toward the 1997 election.

Other issues

The decline of fish stocks on the Atlantic coast became a major policy problem during the 1993-97 period, with consequences probably both plus and minus for the Liberals. To give cod stocks in particular a chance

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