After 10 years leading the government, the growing Sponsorship Scandal and divisions in the Liberal Party, led Jean Chretien to retire as leader of the party, ending his term as prime minister.
This election would see several changes prior to the dropping of the writ. Along with the Liberal Party having a new leader in Paul Martin, the Canadian Alliance was gone, replaced by the Conservative Party of Canada and its new leader Stephen Harper. On the New Democratic side of things, a new man, Jack Layton, was now in charge.
Only Gilles Duceppe remained from the 1997 and 2000 elections.
Most experts believed that Martin would cruise to another majority government but due to the sponsorship scandal, the polls started to show that the popularity of the party was beginning to sink.
The sponsorship scandal was an effort to raise awareness of the contributions the Canadian government had made to Quebec industries and other activities in an effort to counter the separatist movement and the Parti Quebecois. The program began in 1996, one year after the Quebec Referendum and would continue running until 2004. It was in that year, prior to the election, when a broad amount of corruption was found in the operations including money given to Liberal Party-linked ad firms. More than $100 million was paid to these agencies who did little more than hand over the cheques. A total of $2 million was awarded in contracts without a proper bidding system, $250,000 was added to one contract without any additional work, and $1.5 million to one contract when work was never done.
The support for the Liberals would fall as much as 10 per cent nationwide, with huge declines in Ontario and Quebec.
The Liberals would campaign on the slogans of Moving Canada Forward and Choose Your Canada. The central focus of the platform for the party would be health care and the promise to fix it for a generation, but that slowly shift to the back as the party focused on a new strategy, attacking Stephen Harper.
Another issue for the Liberals was that while Martin had name recognition due to his long stint as the finance minister, he was the oldest of the party leaders by a considerable margin, and many saw him as a millionaire who may not be in touch with regular Canadians.
The Conservative Party had only elected its new leader, Harper, in March 2004, only weeks before the writ would drop to trigger the election. Just before the election call, the Conservatives were polling quote well and were within one to two points of the Liberals, sometimes moving ahead as the election call approached. The party would campaign on the slogan of Demand Better. Learning from the 2000 election when the Liberals linked the Canadian Alliance with two-tiered health care, the Conservatives this time around campaigned on putting more money into health care than the Liberals. Overall, the Conservatives would campaign on a $58 billion plan that cut taxes, put much more money into the military and health care, and paid down deficits. The platform was double the amount pledged by the Liberals.
The Liberals would attack the platform, calling Harper a reckless spender that would push Canada further into deficit and jeopardize health care funding.
In order to lower the Conservatives in the poll, the Liberals would demand Harper deal with his party members who had extreme views on abortion, and they would bring out an old essay by Harper that stated the political right wing had to rediscover social conservatism and reverse the societal nihilism that was destroying the moral fabric of the country.
One Conservative candidate would state that homosexuality was unnatural, which Harper stated, quote:
“My understanding is he was simply commenting on his religious teachings, but he’s been asked to make it abundantly clear that he would respect the decisions and the lifestyles of consenting adults.”
Harper would state that if elected he would pass legislation to prohibit same-sex marriage, he would oust any party member who did not treat the LGBTQ community equally.
By June 10, while the poll lead for the Conservatives still existed, they were now forecasted to win 117 seats compared to the 112 by the Liberals.
This election would see a major change in how elections went forward in Canada. Polling times were arranged to allow results from most provinces to be announced almost at the same time. This was because British Columbia residents would often be going to the polls even as results were being announced in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario, thereby influencing voting patterns in the province.
Early in the campaign, the Conservatives polled high with some projecting a Conservative majority. Harper seemed confident enough in victory that he would speak with former prime minister Brian Mulroney about governing with a majority government.
Martin would respond to the sagging in the polls by stating, quote:
This election campaign would immediately show itself to be nastier than usual when John McCallum, Veterans Affairs Minister, confronted Harper at a campaign stop in Ontario over the defence platform. After the incident, Harper would state, quote:
“When you have senior cabinet ministers at street protests, I think they’re pretty worried.”
Things would slowly begin to change though, in regard to the poll numbers.
As the election campaign went on, the Liberals played into the increased concerns among voters over remarks made by Conservative candidates over bilingualism, abortion and homosexuality.
The Liberals would fuel this further with television ads that criticized Harper for supporting the American-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, and stating the Conservatives supported privatized health care. Harper would state that he only advocated lending moral support to the coalition.
Harper would state quote:
“The nature of Liberal campaigning is that they get in the muck. My guess is that they will attack, as they have with my predecessors, my region, my religion, my language, my family. That’s what Liberals do.”
The Conservatives further hurt themselves in the poll by claiming in press release that Martin supported child pornography due to failed action against child pornographers.
Martin would say of the statement, quote:
“This is personal. I am a father, and I am a husband, and he has crossed the line and he should apologize.”
These incidents began to swing support for the party down, giving the Liberals a clearer path to victory.
The Conservatives would attack the Liberals as well, focusing primarily on the sponsorship scandal. One election campaign stop included a large cheque made out to Liberal Friendly Ad Agencies, in the amount of $100 million. Harper would say quote:
“This is only a symbol.”
While the Conservatives had their issues on the campaign trail, the Liberals campaign stumbled enough to keep things close in the polls. On May 27, 2004, the Liberals polled at only 33 per cent in Ontario, previously a bastion of support for the party. On June 10, an IPSOS-Reid poll found the Liberals at 32 per cent and the Conservatives at 31 per cent.
The Liberals would use attack ads, something that was rare for the party before, including one featuring a gun pointed at the camera, with polluted skies. It would state quote:
Harper would attack the ad, stating that it assumed Canadians were imbeciles to believe it. One Conservative spokesman would state quote:
“To show someone pointing a handgun is, first of all, ridiculous and alarmist.”
Overall, the Liberals were more negative in their approach against the Conservatives. Martin would at one point state that the Conservatives, quote:
“Actually, don’t like Canada the way it is. They do think it’s some socialist backwater that’s in decline and they do think that it needs to be fundamentally changed.”
Essentially, the Liberals campaigned on the platform that the Conservatives could not be trusted. The Liberals would even attack the NDP, while also attacking the Conservatives. At one campaign stop for the NDP in Windsor, Ontario, strangers dressed in blue began handing out pamphlets that depicted Layton as Harper’s Helper. Full page ads in Saskatchewan newspapers warned that voters might as well vote for the Conservatives as the NDP. Martin would say quote:
“If you are thinking of voting NDP, I ask you to think about the implications of your vote. In a race as close as this, you may well help Stephen Harper become prime minister.”
The New Democratic Party would be led by a new man, Jack Layton, and this would help to revitalize the entire party in Canada. The party was polling at the same level it did during its 1980s successes. The campaign would focus on gaining seats in urban centres in Canada, and the party’s platform focused on catering to those regions, while Layton would spend his time mostly in the areas of Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and Winnipeg. During one stop in Toronto, Layton would place the blame of homeless deaths directly on Martin, stating quote:
“The deaths due to homelessness in this city took a rapid rise immediately after Paul Martin cancelled the affordable housing program and their names stand in testimony to the neglect that has reigned on our city.”
The remark would result in the Liberals demanding an apology from Layton.
Layton, generally unknown outside of Toronto where he had been a city councilor, would begin a road this year that would lead to him becoming a Canadian icon to many.
The Bloc Quebecois had suffered setbacks in 1997 and 2000 and many thought the party would continue to decline. By the time the election rolled around though, support for independence in Quebec had grown and this would reflect in the rising poll numbers for the Bloc, who also benefitted from the sponsorship scandal and its impact on the Liberals.
The Green Party would run candidates in every riding for the first time in its history, and it would win twice as many votes in the election over the previous 21 years of its existence combined. With their share of the popular vote, the Greens were able to receive federal funding for the first time.
Health care continued to be the main focus of the campaign, especially with the cuts to transfer payments to the provinces by 16 per cent. In one poll, it was found that 48 per cent of respondents put health care as the most important issue, twice that of the second most citied issue, corruption in government. The sponsorship scandal would be a central part of the strategy for every party except the Liberals. Attacking the Liberals for being too long in power and corrupt was a basic strategy for all the opposition parties.
In the French Language debate on Feb. 15, Martin would be attacked by the other party leaders over the sponsorship scandal, while Harper was attacked over his support of the Iraq invasion coalition. Most viewers felt that Harper took the worst beating in the debate. During one attack, Martin would state, quote:
“You were for the war in Iraq. You wanted to send our soldiers there. And now we find ourselves in a position we don’t know what your position is.”
During the debate, Harper appeared to have been caught off guard by the assault, stating quote:
During the English language debate the following day, the attacks against Harper and Martin continued, more or less over the same matters covered in the French Language Debate.
After the debate, the Conservatives polled at 36 per cent, compared to the 31 per cent by the Liberals. Two days later, the polls had the Liberals at 35 per cent and the Conservatives at 34 per cent. In the last poll before the election, the Conservatives sat at an estimated 115 seats, and the Liberals were at 106.
The election, held on June 28, 2004, would see the Liberals lose 33 seats to fall to 135, 20 below what was needed for a majority government. This would be the first time since 1972 that the Liberals had a minority government.
The Conservatives would rise 27 seats to finish with 99, forming the Official Opposition.
The Bloc would rebound from the previous elections, gaining 21 seats to finish with 54, the highest total in its history.
The NDP would also increase its seats, by five, to finish with 19, to become the fourth party in the House of Commons.
The Conservatives would take most of the seats in the west from British Columbia to Manitoba. The Liberals would pick up only six seats from Alberta to Manitoba, and eight seats in British Columbia. In Ontario, the Liberals lost several seats but still kept 75, while the Conservatives won 24 seats. In Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois took most of the seats at 54, while the Liberals took the remaining 21 seats.
Martin would say of the win, quote:
“Canadians expected and expect more from us and as a party and as a government we must do better, and we will. I pledge that to you tonight.”
Layton, who saw his party with more power thanks to the minority government, would state of the election, quote:
“My commitment to Canadians tonight is that we will hold him to it with every ounce of energy that we have.”
Even with the loss, Harper was optimistic the future.
“We all accept the verdict of the Canadian people. Remember that until someone, someday, achieves a majority, the fight is not yet won or lost.”
Information from Macleans, Queen’s University, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia, Ottawa Citizen