Liberals hang on to lead over Tories, poll shows
TORONTO - Ontario's Liberals managed to hang on to the lead they had going into the provincial election as the issue of faith-based education dogged their rival Conservatives through the first week of the campaign, a new poll released Wednesday suggests.
While previous surveys have indicated voters felt Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory would make the best premier, The Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll now appears to give that nod to Premier Dalton McGuinty.
"No question that this poll should be read as good news for the Liberals," Harris-Decima president Bruce Anderson said Wednesday in an interview from Ottawa.
"The advantage has slipped toward Mr. McGuinty now."
The five-day survey that wrapped up Monday found the Liberals at 41 per cent support, the Conservatives at 32 per cent, the New Democrats 14 per cent and the Greens 12 per cent.
Results of the survey of 704 residents - it carries a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20 - is substantially similar to a Harris-Decima poll done for The Canadian Press in the days just before the campaign formally got underway Sept. 10.
However, Anderson said the poll cannot be taken as evidence of sustained momentum for the Liberals heading toward Thursday night's pivotal televised debate.
When it comes to who would make the best premier, 27 per cent of respondents chose McGuinty, compared with 23 per cent for Tory. Ten per cent chose NDP Leader Howard Hampton.
Anderson said the poll suggests both front-running parties now have tough strategy choices to make.
For the Liberals, it's a question of deciding whether there's still mileage in hammering Tory over the faith-based education issue at the risk losing control as the agenda shifts elsewhere.
The Progressive Conservatives have to decide whether to take the "very big gamble" of staying with an issue that has so far cost them support, Anderson said.
"There's no question that the challenge is now for the Conservatives to find some way either to win that debate that has become so front and centre or to shift the agenda to something that's more fruitful for them."
Tory has consistently refused to discuss poll results, but the chairman of the Liberal campaign, Finance Minister Greg Sorbara, said they came as no surprise.
"When Mr. Tory came out with the notion of providing public funds to private religious schools, I thought the majority could be even larger," Sorbara said.
NDP Leader Howard Hampton said he expected the defining issue of the campaign would be "Dalton McGuinty's credibility."
The poll also indicates that voters had other concerns in mind, such as health care. The environment appears to be a "sleeper issue" at this stage, Anderson said.
"The faith-based funding issue has become the elephant that's crowding the room and creating a situation where not very many other issues are getting a lot of oxygen just yet," Anderson said.
"We should take it as read that voters will want to see more from the party leaders and the parties on those issues."
That happened on the campaign trail Wednesday, when Tory pledged in Toronto to expand the role of private health care within the public system if he's elected.
The province should be able to take advantage of the expertise and service offered by private clinics as long as the costs are borne by medicare, Tory said.
Hampton, who campaigned in Windsor and London, said the NDP's focus would be to hire more doctors and provide better treatment for seniors as a way to ease the crunch in hospital emergency rooms.
McGuinty only had one event before prepping for the important TV debate, promoting his literacy platform at a Toronto bookstore.