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Spring election fever grips Ottawa

[PoliticsWatch posted 6:00 p.m. April 1, 2005]

Can Paul Martin lead his party to victory this spring? 

Are Paul Martin and the Liberals planning to go to the polls this spring?     

Many pundits in Ottawa argue that talk of the Liberals orchestrating their own defeat with an omnibus budget bill that has created a confidence showdown with the Conservatives is overblown. 

But an argument can be made that the Liberals launching a campaign at the present moment may not be a bad thing. 

PoliticsWatch.com has closely examined riding-by-riding results from the last federal election and they show the Liberals could regain a majority government with a slight surge in popularity in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and Western Canada. 

However, there is a big "if" attached to this scenario. The Liberals would have to maintain their hold on 22 seats in Quebec. 

As much as the conventional wisdom is that the Bloc has reached its maximum seat potential in the province, the results from the last election show that is not necessarily true. Five of the Liberal seats in Quebec were won by margins of less than 2,000 votes over Bloc candidates. 

Quebec and the revelations from the Gomery inquiry become crucial for any Liberal chances for going to the polls in the spring. 

The judge heading up the inquiry has given the Liberals a window of opportunity, which may allow them to perhaps have the most damaging revelations effectively embargoed for weeks. 

Earlier this week, Justice John Gomery agreed to put a publication ban on the testimony of three key witnesses who are facing criminal proceedings in May. All three of these witnesses will testify this month, but the details of their testimony could potentially remained sealed until mid June. 

Jean Brault of Groupaction, Chuck Guite, the executive director of the sponsorship program, and Paul Coffin of Coffin Communications have a combined 18 fraud charges against them related to government advertising contracts. Their trials begin in Montreal in early May and could take four to six weeks. Once the juries in the trials are sequestered then the ban on the publication of evidence at Gomery will be lifted. 

The testimony of all three men has the potential to be the Liberal party's worst nightmare and could shed further light on how money from the advertising firms landed in the coffers of the Liberal Party. 

Brault, whose three days in the witness chair so far has been subject to a publication ban, has been fingered in other testimony for reimbursing other ad executives for donations to the Liberal party or payments to Liberal party organizers. Before the commission imposed a publication ban, testimony put the total sum of what Brault had donated indirectly to the Liberals at over $74,000. 

A Globe and Mail story published on Friday did not give details about what Brault said on the stand Thursday, but described him as testifying in a "forthcoming way about events surrounding the controversial program."

Guite would be making his second appearance before the commission. In his testimony last fall, Guite said with ease that he was given political direction about which events to sponsor and which ad firms to select from both Jean Pelletier, who was former prime minister Jean Chretien's chief of staff, and former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano. 

The third man whose testimony is subject to the publication ban is Coffin, who is considered a bit of an outsider in the whole affair with no particular loyalty to the Liberals. 

"Not a member of the inner circle of the sponsorship crowd -- Coffin was actually considered more of a Tory than Liberal -- he may feel relatively unconstrained in his testimony before Gomery," wrote Sun Media columnist Greg Weston this week. 

Gomery has also given the media lawyers the right to ask for certain testimony to be released once each of the three men complete their testimony, allowing testimony that could be damaging to the Liberals to be put in the public realm before the three men go on trail. Gomery could also choose to maintain a total ban. 

In an interview over the weekend, Jean Lapierre, Martin's Quebec lieutenant, said he was hesitant about going to the polls while Gomery was in progress.

"Obviously, I wouldn't want to go to the polls at this time," he said. "This is no time to go to the polls, when you're in the middle of this."

But the publication ban has given his party a two-month window of opportunity to hold a six-week campaign before what could be the most damaging testimony is made public. 

The argument for an early election is: "It's bad now, but it could get worse." 

The latest SES poll shows the Liberals were up three points in Quebec from where they finished after the June election. 

Going to the polls now would mean the Liberals could hang on to five seats they won by narrow margins in the province. 

But the possibility of devastating news from Gomery would likely mean the Liberals would likely lose those five seats, two of which are held by high-profile cabinet ministers. 

Here are the marginal seats with the margin of victory for the Liberal candidates in Quebec. 

Jeanne-Le Bar Liza Frulla 72
Papineau Pierre Pettigrew 468
Gatineau Francois Boivin 830
Brome-Missisquoi  Denis Paradis 1,072
Ahuntsic Eleni Bakopanos 1,214

The Liberals even have the potential to pick up two more seats they lost to the Bloc by narrow margins - Nunavik-Eeyou, where BQ candidate Yvon Levesque beat Liberal MP Guy St. Julien by 572 votes and Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, where BQ candidate Robert Bouchard defeated Liberal MP André Harvey by 863 votes.

In Atlantic Canada, the Liberals have the potential to gain three seats. 

The budget implementation bill, which the Conservatives plan to vote against because it contains a provision giving the federal government greater powers to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, also contains the special offshore accords reached after months of negotiations with the governments of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. 

If the NDP and the Conservatives vote against the budget implementation bill, the Liberals could try to capitalize on their opponents in the two provinces. 

In the three seats in Atlantic Canada that were won by fewer than 2000 votes in the last election, the Liberals came in second in all three. And the three seats are in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. 

Here are the seats with the margin of victory for the opposition MPs. 

St. John's North Norman Doyle (CPC) 730
Halifax Alexa McDonough (NDP 1,074
St. John's South Loyola Hearn (CPC) 1,452

The Liberals have already started trying to link the defeat of the budget bill to the defeat of the accord. 

"I'm concerned what the opposition will do with this bill," Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan said in a weekend interview. "If they're going to defeat the budget, then they've made a decision to defeat this deal."

To prevent such a card from being used against them in the election campaign, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper wrote the premiers of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland this week and said his party planned to have the accords separated from the budget bill in committee. However, that division would likely not make it out of committee without the support of the Liberals since the Bloc Quebecois is opposed to the accords. 

But Government House Leader Tony Valeri said Thursday the Conservative plan to divide the budget omnibus bill at committee could be create a vote of confidence. 

The Liberals could make gains in Ontario as well. Picking up more 11 seats is not out of the question. 

The latest SES poll shows the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP all holding the same percentage of the province's popular vote that they won on election day. 

Twenty-one seats in the province were won by margins of less than 2,000 votes. 

Much like the Liberals in Quebec who won a large number of their seats by a narrow margin, the Conservatives' 24 seats in Ontario are a house of cards, with 10 of the seats won by margins of less than 2,000 votes. 

In nine of those 10 close races, the Conservatives edged out Liberal candidates. 

The NDP also won two seats with less than 2,000 votes where the Liberal candidate finished second. 

Here are the seats the Liberals could swipe from the opposition with the margin of victory for the opposition MPs. 

Simcoe-Grey Helen Guergis (CPC) 100
Cambridge Gary Goodyear (CPC) 224
Timmins-James Bay Charlie Angus (NDP) 613
Niagara-West Glanbrook  Dean Allison (CPC) 664
Newmarket-Aurora  Belinda Stronach (CPC)  689
Sault Ste. Marie Tony Martin (NDP) 752
Essex Jeff Watson (CPC)  829
Niagara Falls Rob Nicholson (CPC) 1,137
Clarington-Scugog-Uxbridge Bev Oda (CPC) 1,265
Haldimand-Norfolk Diane Finley (CPC)  1,645
Dufferin-Caledon David Tilson (CPC) 1,713

Key members of Harper's shadow cabinet are in this group including trade critic Belinda Stronach, who narrowly defeated Liberal candidate and lawyer Martha Hall Findlay. Hall Findlay has since bought a home in the riding and plans to run again as the Liberal candidate in the next election, according to her campaign Web site, which she still maintains. 

The Liberals also had their fair share of victories by a nose with nine seats won by margins of less than 2,000. However, this campaign will be missing one key component the last election had - The McGuinty Factor. 

Liberal MPs and defeated candidates ranked residual voter hostility for the tabling of an unpopular, tax-raising budget by their provincial Liberal cousins last May up there with voter anger over the sponsorship scandal and the government's position on same-sex marriage. 

Former cabinet minister Stan Keyes held McGuinty responsible for much of the damage done in Ontario last year, saying McGuinty breaking his election pledge not to raise taxes created headlines calling the party "Fiberals."

The Liberals will not have to play in that hostile environment if they go to the polls now. 

In Western Canada, a surge for the Liberals could deliver nine seats from the Conservatives and the NDP. 

This week, the party looked to boost its image in the region announcing a $1 billion relief program for farmers and the announcement that the government was moving its Tourism Commission to the region. The prime minister himself was on hand for the second announcement. 

In British Columbia, the Liberals finished a close second in four races and are looking to replace these four MPs. 

Burnaby-Westminster Peter Julian (NDP) 329
Newton North Delta Gurmant Grewal (CPC)  520
Burnaby-Douglas  Bill Siksay (NDP) 934
West Vancouver-Sunshine John Reynolds (CPC)  1,687

Reynolds' riding could be particularly susceptible as he plans not to run in the next election. But the Liberals would also have to hold the seat Industry Minister David Emerson won by just 1,351 votes over an NDP candidate. 

In Manitoba three opposition MPs eked out narrow victories against the Liberals. 

Kildonan-St. Paul  Joy Smith (CPC) 278
Charleswood-St. James Stephen Fletcher (CPC) 734
Churchill Bev Desjarlais (NDP) 1,008

Fletcher, the Conservatives' health critic, may have an easier go of it the next time as he would not have to face Liberal star candidate and former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray at the ballot box.

In Saskatchewan, the Conservatives narrowly beat the Liberals in two ridings 

Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre  Tom Lukiwski 122
Churchill River Jeremy Harrison 1,464

Of course, gains in Western Canada can only be made if both Alberta Liberal MPs Anne McLellan and David Kilgour hold their seats, which they won by margins of 721 and 134 votes, respectively. 

So taken as a whole, if the Liberals can maintain their seats in Quebec, pick up 11 in Ontario, nine in Western Canada and three in Atlantic Canada that would be a net gain of 23 seats. The Liberals currently hold 133 seats, so the new total would be 156 of 308 ridings, enough for a narrow majority. 

But this is predicated on opting for a risky election strategy of campaigning while potentially damaging testimony could be lurking under a publication ban. 

In 1993, the sensational trial of Karla Homolka was the subject of a publication ban in an effort to ensure a fair trial for her husband, Paul Bernardo. At the time, two U.S. outlets reported the grizzly details of Homolka's manslaughter trial. Canadians crossed the border to buy copies of the Washington Post and bootleg videos and transcripts from the tabloid news program A Current Affair began circulating around Canada. 

The Homolka stories from American news organizations also were available in Canada at the time on the Internet at a news group devoted to followers of the trial. But at the time the World Wide Web was in its infancy and only connected to 3 million computers worldwide. 

Twelve years later and with widespread Internet access and thousands of savvy, independent Web publishers in the U.S. known as bloggers, details of what is under Gomery's publication ban could easily find their way onto the Internet and into Canada, making the publication ban an unstable umbrella of protection from any damaging testimony that could be lurking.

But the other option of waiting until all of the testimony from Gomery has been made public may not be appealing either if anything explosive is revealed. 

The nature of what comes out of the inquiry between now and June may not only hurt the Liberals in Quebec, where Gomery is the hottest thing in reality television, but could once again ignite the coast-to-coast anger that was seen in the days after Auditor General Sheila Fraser tabled her report that knocked Paul Martin's easy cruise to majority victory off course. 

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