Globe and Mail

Election issues can ruin good policy

JOHN IBBITSON
Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 21, 2000

The abiding problem with elections is that, in the heat of the campaign, not only perspective but possibilities are lost. Passion poisons policy, and it can take years to restore balance. Call it the lesson of Lyn McLeod.

Mrs. McLeod is a Liberal back-bench MPP in the Ontario Legislature who works diligently on behalf of her Thunder Bay constituents, while giving the Mike Harris government as much grief as she can from her powerless chair.

But for a newspaper headline, she could have been premier.

Mrs. McLeod was Liberal leader in 1995 when NDP premier Bob Rae called an election that pollsters, pundits and professors unanimously agreed her party would win. Halfway through the campaign, her lead untouched, her coronation seemingly assured, Mrs. McLeod talked to some reporters about the need for new legislation that would toughen the definition of, and penalties for, domestic violence. People who abused their spouses, she maintained, should be evicted from the family home.

Did her definition of domestic violence extend to verbal abuse, a reporter asked. It certainly did, Mrs. McLeod replied.

The next day The Toronto Sun's entire front page screamed: "Shout at spouse, lose your house." Almost immediately, Mrs. McLeod's popularity began to slide, and Mr. Harris's to rise. And that was that.

(There were other factors: the leaders' debate; the Tory advertising campaign; the rightward drift of the electorate. But Liberal insiders put the Sun headline at or near the top of the list when asked why the wheels came off in '95.)

The Sun headline poisoned the possibility of domestic-violence legislation for half a decade. According to reliable sources, when onetime attorney-general Charles Harnick proposed reforms that would permit the courts to evict verbal abusers from a home, Mr. Harris personally vetoed the legislation, asserting he didn't want to get tarred with the "shout at spouse" label.

Last month, the second Tory majority government well ensconced, incumbent Attorney-General James Flaherty introduced Bill 117, the domestic-violence act. The bill defines violence as "an act or omission or threatened act or omission that causes the applicant to fear for his or her safety." Ministry staff confirm that the wording was designed to include verbal threats. The penalties include "requiring the respondent to vacate the applicant's residence." In other words, verbally abusing your spouse could get you evicted.

"I wanted to yell across the floor, 'Shout at your spouse . . .' " Mrs. McLeod confessed. "But I didn't. It's a good law."

Taken all in all, there is very little within this or any other liberal democracy over which mainstream political parties differ.

To create the illusion of a contest, party strategists magnify the minute. If you vote for those guys, they won't reduce the debt as fast as we would. Oh yeah, well if you vote for those guys, they'll go one baby step further in permitting private medical care.

Sometimes debate gets so polarized that good ideas become radioactive. It can take years before they cool off enough to be reconsidered. If the Liberals win the federal election expected to be called for Nov. 27, they might put off flattening the income tax rate for years. An Alliance government might wait until its second mandate before considering national standards in daycare.

So when the ads hit the airwaves in November, and the torqued headlines scream from the front pages, remember Mrs. McLeod. Had she become premier, Ontario would have the same domestic-violence legislation that it will have under Mr. Harris.

We just had to wait five years.

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