After the monumental change brought forward by the 1993 election, things were a bit more stable and relaxed going into the 1997 election.
The election came only two years after the 1995 Quebec Referendum, which asked voters whether or not Quebec should proclaim national sovereignty and become an independent country. The vote would take place on Oct. 30, 1995, featuring the largest voter turnout in Quebec history when 93.52 per cent of voters cast their vote. The No side would win, barely, with 50.58 per cent of the vote. With the loss, Jacques Parizeau, the premier of Quebec, resigned from his post. The election of 1997 would be dominated by the worry over the secession of Quebec from Canada, with some believing a new referendum could come as early as later in 1997 or in 1998.
Over the previous three and a half years, the Liberals had suffered in popularity due to cuts in several sectors in order to balance the budget. The 1995 budget was historic in its cuts, which reduced the size of government departments, and reduced the transfer payments to provincial governments for health, welfare and education. Despite this, there was little doubt among commentators of another Liberal win, with most predicting at least a minority government.
Parliament would be dissolved on April 26, 1997, with the election scheduled for June 2, 1997. The calling of the election after three years and five months made it the earliest election call by a majority government since 1911. There was also anger within the Liberal Party over the decision to call the election early, especially as Manitoba was still recovering from the catastrophic Red River Flood that hit in April and May. This allowed his critics in the other parties to portray him as insensitive and forcing the country to go to the polls because he thought he could win.
Voting in nine Manitoba ridings would be impacted by the flood. Preston Manning also announced he would not campaign in the flood hit areas as he did not want to politicize the disaster and he refused to allow television cameras to film him viewing the disaster from a plane.
Jean Charest, leader of the Progressive Conservatives, would state quote:
“He should have asked or consulted with the chief electoral officer before calling the election. I would have thought that was one of the reasons why he visited Manitoba before calling the election.”
All parties would pull ads from running in Manitoba during the election.
The day after the election, the Liberals polled well in places like Alberta, at 36 per cent, while the Reform were at 29 per cent and the Progressive Conservatives were at 27 per cent.
Unemployment remained the main issue for voters, polling at 29 per cent, which was lower than in 1993. Social Programs, National Unity and Health Care were also concerns for voters, comprising 15, 10 and 10 per cent respectively.
The Liberals would campaign on a promise of cutting the federal deficit to allow for a budget surplus, and then using half the surplus to repay Canada’s national debt and cut taxes, while the remaining part of the surplus would be used to fund health care, assistance for children in poverty and job creation.
Called Securing Our Future Together, the Liberals were attacked almost immediately by the Opposition Parties for what they saw as failed promises from the 1993 election. The Liberals would promise to constitutionally recognize Quebec as a distinct society in an effort to strengthen national unity.
Unlike the smooth-running campaign of 1993, the Liberals would suffer a few gaffes. One of the most notable was Chretien’s inability to give a cost on what the national pharmacare program would be. Chretien also did few interviews, turning down many interviews with the major news outlets, MuchMusic and the CBC.
The Reform Party would campaign on the promise of preserving national unity by decentralizing power within the federal government and giving it to the provinces. This would include no longer having the federal government enforce the Canada Health Act. Provinces would also get powers over language and culture. Their platform was called Fresh Start for All Canadians, and they would run candidates in all regions of Canada, the first and only time the party would do so. In mid-May during the campaign, would also promise a referendum on abortion, stating it would hold referendums on that issue and on capital punishment. They had actually created their platform a year before the election, with the hope they could move away from just being a western party. The Reform Party had found new problems internally since its success in the previous election. This included intolerant views held by several Reform MPs, while tensions in the party came about over criticism of Preston Manning and his $31,000 personal allowance as leader. Manning had gone through a complete makeover before the election as well. His glasses would be gone, replaced with contacts, he would wear leather jackets and his hair was styled differently.
Manning would also attack Chretien for a variety of reasons, including saying he was too old to lead. This was somewhat ironic since Chretien was only eight years older than Manning. Manning would state quote:
“During the first week, he’s virtually disappeared. He went for a walk in the woods and took a rest. This is not exactly the vigorous kind of energy that’s required to take a country into the 21st century.”
The Bloc Quebecois was now under the leadership of Gilles Duceppe after Lucien Bouchard left to pursue provincial politics, becoming the premier of Quebec in the process. The party was dealing with sagging popularity after the failure of the Quebec referendum and the loss of Bouchard as leader. The party polled at 35 per cent of decided voters in mid-May of 1997. The party would suffer a setback, thanks to a minor reason, when Duceppe wore a hairnet while touring a cheese factory, creating an image that was mocked throughout Canada. Several French newspapers in Quebec would make fun of the look, comparing it to a condom.
The New Democratic Party was now led by Alexa McDonough, and they hoped to regain their party status after a poor showing in 1993. The party would campaign on the promise of raising federal cash transfers to $15 billion, while also imposing national standards on provincial welfare programs, low tuition fees and enforcing the Canada Health Act. The party would also attack both the Liberals and Reform Party heavily. In one instance, McDonough stated that the Reform Party would lead to civil war. She would state quote:
“Preston Manning feasts, he feeds on the kind of divisiveness that the Chretien government has allowed to develop and that the Mulroney government set in motion. I think it is absolutely clear that where Preston Manning’s policies would lead us in the country is straight into a civil war.”
Manning would state that her comments were a sign of desperation saying quote:
“It sounds to me like she kind of went over the top. That is the last thing that anyone in the federal political arena, no matter what their political stripe, is advocating.”
Manning would have further issues when protestors during a Guelph speech who yelled “Racist”, “Sexist” and “Anti-Gay”. Unable to talk over the protestors, Manning would leave before his speech was finished.
Manning’s mother, Muriel, would even get involved, attacking Chretien after the prime minister cited her deceased husband Ernest, who he said wouldn’t support Preston’s campaign. She would say quote:
“Is Mr. Chretien so desperate to defend his position that he has to drum up support from the grave?”
As for the Progressive Conservatives, Kim Campbell was long gone as leader and the party was led by Jean Charest, one of only two candidates to keep their seat in Parliament. The party would campaign on national unity, a common theme after the Quebec referendum, promising to recognize Quebec as a distinct society, but the party would concentrate on a division of powers. Unlike in previous elections, the party had little in the way of finances, and had to build from the bottom up since it was not an official party in Parliament.
Many voters talked of the apathy they had for the election, after what they felt were two decades of lies from both parties. Denis Macdonald of New Glasgow would state quote:
Reiny Schmidt, a retired accountant, would state, quote:
“So far, I am not hearing much that excites me.”
Many voters were also looking back at the Progressive Conservatives, hoping for a strong opposition, rather than a diluted one made up of four parties. Andrew Townsend, who lived in Ontario, would state, quote:
“Now I know who they are. Brian Mulroney isn’t part of it any more and Jean Charest knows where he is going.”
In the campaign, the Reform Party would run a television ad that featured the faces of Prime Minister Chretien, Bloc Quebecois leader Duceppe, Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest and Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, with all of their names crossed out, with a message that Quebec politicians had dominated the federal government for too long. The advertisement was criticized by the other parties for being intolerant and bigoted.
This would be the first federal election in Canadian history in which the internet began to play a role, along with computer technology. An example of this was seen in the Progressive Conservatives use of a CD-ROM to publicly distribute their platform to the Canadian public.
The usual debates would be held, with Jean Charest being seen as doing the best in the English debates, even earning a round of applause in the first debate from the audience, the only time they clapped, after he stated he wanted to keep the country together and pass it on to his children as it was passed on to his parents.
The most notable part of the debates was when the moderator fainted during the opening segment when Jean Chretien was talking. This put an early end to the French debate.
While debates in the past had upwards of seven to eight million viewers, the debates of 1997 had 1.265 million viewers, below even the 1.7 million that watched in 1993. In 1988, nearly four million people watched the debate between Mulroney and Turner.
By May 27, only days before the election, polls put the Liberals at a minority government, with the party falling below 40 per cent in popular support for the first time since before the 1993 election. The Progressive Conservatives sat at 21 per cent, while the Reform was at 17 per cent.
In a poll on May 30, Jean Charest was cited as the top choice among polled Canadians for the person they wanted to be prime minister.
By June 1, the parties were trading some intense attacks. Manning would call the Conservatives a walking corpse, stating that they just want enough money to trot the corpse out and dress it up. Charest in response said he would never work with the Reform Party due to their ads that attacked French Canadians. McDonough would attack the Liberals, stating they used thug-like tactics to retain their stranglehold on Atlantic Canada.
In the June 2, 1997, election, the Liberals lost 19 seats to finish with 155 seats, one more than was needed for a majority government.
The Reform Party pushed the Bloc Quebecois, gaining 10 seats to finish with 60, becoming the Official Opposition.
The Bloc Quebecois lost six seats to finish with 44, as other parties made inroads into Quebec after being mostly shut out in 1993.
The New Democratic Party would rebound from the terrible election result in 1993, picking up 12 seats to finish with 21. This election result allowed the party to regain its official party status.
On the Progressive Conservative side of things, any increase of seats would be seen as a victory. In the end, the party had the best seat increase of all the parties, gaining 18 seats to finish with 20, staying as the fifth party in the House of Commons, but regaining its official party status. Its share of the popular vote was also the third most in the election, behind only the Liberals and Reform Party.
In Alberta, the widely popular premier Ralph Klein would campaign for the Progressive Conservatives, rather than the Reform Party. He would state quote:
“In any campaign, there will be different messages. An angry message, for example, attracts an angry voter.”
Regionally, the Reform Party dominated in the Canadian West, taking the majority of seats in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Alberta, the party won 24 of 26 seats. It was in Ontario that the Liberals won the election, picking up 101 out of 104 seats, a result that along would have given the Liberals a minority government. In Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois still picked up 44 seats, but the Liberals had 26, while the Progressive Conservatives had five. In the Maritimes, it was an even split between the Progressive Conservatives, New Democratic Party and the Liberals.
The election would see only 67 per cent of voters turn out to cast a ballot, the lowest seen since 1925.
By the time the 2000 election came along, three of the five parties from the 1997 election would have new leaders, and the Reform Party itself, despite forming the Official Opposition, would go through a name change.
Information from Macleans, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia,