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Harvey Schachter

Public opinion turns when you least expect it Add to ...

A government in its fifth year in power, without any sign of a populace inclined to throw it out. The government viewed as competent, with the opposition leaders unfit to take office, according to the pollsters' readings. Add in one factor, however, and you'll recognize I'm not talking about Stephen Harper.

In the instance I'm thinking about, the government leader was charming, affable and generally well liked - indeed, his team was towering at about 50 per cent in the polls. His name was David Peterson, he was the premier of Ontario in 1990 and, when he called a summer election, it was assumed by many that his government would sail to another term in power.

He was an effective premier. There was one scandal brewing, around a fundraiser, Patti Starr, who had been charged with breaking the Elections Finance Act, but that seemed contained. Most important, Bob Rae, the official opposition leader, and Mike Harris, the third party leader, were clearly not up to the job of premier, most Ontarians seemed to feel.

A few months later, of course, Mr. Rae was premier. The message: While governments sometimes sail to re-election as the pre-election polls and balloting don't vary much - Mr. Peterson experienced that in 1987 - elections sometimes are tsunamis. Public opinion polls are really measures of public sentiment, not more deeply held opinions for the all-important uncommitted voters, and can change dramatically when an election is called.

Let's turn to today, and apply the lessons from the past.

The first lesson is that elections are decided by feelings toward the government - sentiment that can be stirred up during an election. The classic truism is that governments lose elections; the opposition doesn't win elections. When the public is riled and decides to boot out the government, an opposition figure who doesn't seem ready for prime time may be given the task despite those concerns. The Harper Conservatives have done an excellent job of tarnishing Michael Ignatieff's image, but, in the end, it won't be sufficient if the public passion becomes aroused against Mr. Harper.

The second message is that, even after five years, a government can be booted out - it doesn't take eight to 10 years for the public to become inflamed. For Mr. Peterson, the match that ignited his political cremation was calling an unnecessary election. Mr. Harper has done a good job of avoiding that mistake. But it wasn't the early election that ultimately defeated Mr. Peterson. It was his role in supporting the Meech Lake accord, an economy that was starting to sour, the whiff of scandal in party fundraising, and probably a feeling he was too comfortable in power. Mr. Harper doesn't have Meech Lake. But he does have plenty of other policies he can be blamed for, an approach to power that may be his Achilles heel, and a personality few Canadians find endearing.

The third lesson is that, when an electorate turns, the results of the last election aren't all that meaningful. We have been treated to "inside baseball" accounts on election planning and on how clever the strategists are at seeking wins in a few carefully targeted ridings that can determine whether the next government will be a majority or minority one. But, usually, it doesn't mean all that much if the electorate decides, like a tsunami, to roll over the past. Indeed, an electoral tsunami can even make Bob Rae premier of Ontario, moving from 19 seats to a 74-seat majority.

Does that mean the Harper Conservatives will lose the next election? No. But it warns us that what we see today might not be what we see on election night.


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