Ontario voters prepared to oust Tories, poll finds

By RICHARD MACKIE - The Globe and Mail, Friday, Feb. 28, 2003

Ontario's Progressive Conservatives will face an unhappy and confused electorate if they call a spring election because they have lost their brand -- many former supporters are uncertain as to where the party stands, according to a new Ipsos-Reid poll.

The survey found that as Premier Ernie Eves and the Tories ponder the timing of a spring election, they are confronted with a slightly diminished level of popular support and an electorate where a clear majority of voters think it is time for a change in government.

The Tories are given low or indifferent scores in a number of areas where they used to receive a strong endorsement from voters, such as cutting taxes and providing honest government.

Support for the Liberals, however, has also declined slightly. And the government continues to get good marks for its record in other areas, such as creating jobs and dealing with crime.

John Wright, senior vice-president at Ipsos-Reid, said the poll shows that "the Tories want to go into an election campaign with momentum and it doesn't appear to be showing up."

The poll found that 43 per cent of decided voters would support the Liberal Party under Dalton McGuinty if an election were held today, while 36 per cent would pick the Tories.

Fifteen per cent would choose the New Democratic Party under Howard Hampton. Five per cent would opt for the Green Party led by Frank de Jong, according to the survey, which was conducted earlier this month for The Globe and Mail, CFTO television and radio station CFRB.

The numbers show only slight shifts from similar polls in December and in October, suggesting that none of the parties has been able to make a breakthrough in attracting voters, Mr. Wright said.

In December, the Conservatives were supported by 38 per cent of decided voters, while 45 per cent picked the Liberals, 14 per cent preferred the New Democrats and 3 per cent opted for the Green Party.

The Tories were able to win a majority government in the election in June, 1999, with 45 per cent of the vote, to 40 per cent for the Liberals and 13 per cent for the New Democrats.

Adding to the obstacles facing the Tories is the fact that 57 per cent of voters say it is time for a change, while 37 per cent say the government should be reelected.

By comparison, in May of 1999, 52 per cent said it was time for a change while 46 per cent said the Tories deserved to be re-elected.

The latest numbers continue a trend against the government that was evident last June, when 41 per cent of those surveyed favoured re-election and 56 per cent of voters said it was time for a change.

Mr. Wright said the survey's results make it less likely Ontario will face a spring election.

"Would you go to the polls on these numbers? Maybe, if you were sure that you could have a killer campaign."

He explained that a Tory campaign would need to convince the 15 per cent of voters who can be swayed that Mr. Eves is a better leader and runs a better government than would be provided by Mr. McGuinty and the Liberals.

(A poll last month found that Mr. Eves was viewed as the leader who would make the best premier by 42 per cent of those polled, while 26 per cent picked Mr. McGuinty.)

Mr. Wright noted that the survey's results also show signs of vulnerability for the Liberals, as they have not been able to push up their level of voter support despite the lack of fervour for Mr. Eves and the Tories.

The poll, which was conducted between Feb. 13 and 20, questioned 1,000 Ontario residents. A sample of this size is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

On a positive note for the Tories, the government has the approval of strong majorities for its record in some areas.

Sixty-three per cent like its success in increasing business investment in the province. Sixty-two per cent are happy with its ability to create jobs. And 60 per cent say it has done well in dealing with crime.

In other areas, voters are not happy.

Sixty per cent disapprove of its handling of the education system. Fifty-six per cent disapprove of its efforts to preserve Ontario's system of health care.

And 50 per cent disapprove of its measures to protect the environment.

Voters are split in two areas that once were strong points for the Conservatives, areas that were key elements of the Common Sense Revolution that paved the party's way to office.

Only 47 per cent approve of the government's record in cutting taxes, while another 47 per cent disapprove. And only 49 per cent approve of the Tories performance in providing honest and trustworthy government, while 47 per cent disapprove.

Most startlingly, 63 per cent disapprove when asked to rate the government in spending taxpayers' money wisely, while only 34 per cent approve.

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