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Liberals' rural dilemma
They're as popular as grasshoppers, drought: Many disenchanted rural Canadians view Liberals as an affliction, Doug Fischer discovers.
Doug Fischer
The Ottawa Citizen

Ask Lorne Guttormson about the Liberals' chances in his south Saskatchewan riding on June 28 and he laughs. Heartily.

"Hell, a party in favour of grasshoppers and drought could get more votes than those guys," the 47-year-old grain farmer says from his 202-hectare spread. "The Liberals just don't get rural folks. I don't think they ever will."

And in return, it seems, rural Canadians won't be getting many Liberals as political representatives.

A Citizen analysis of the country's 70 constituencies where rural voters are likely to significantly influence the outcome suggests the Liberals will be fortunate to win 20 of those seats.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are on track to capture as many as 45, with most of the remaining few going to the Bloc in rural Quebec. The NDP, once a force in rural Western Canada, will likely be reduced to one, possibly two seats.

Of course, the prospect of Conservative success in Western Canada's 30 rural ridings comes as no surprise. Reform or Tory candidates have won the vast majority of those seats in three elections since 1993. Now that the parties have merged, victory seems a virtual certainty in at least 28 of those ridings.

Where things appear to have changed significantly since the 2000 election is Ontario, where the Conservatives are poised to win as many as a dozen rural seats, up from the three captured by the Alliance (two) and PCs (one) four years ago.

In the Maritimes, the Conservatives could take five of eight rural seats, three more than the Alliance and PCs won in 2000. Only in Newfoundland and the North, where the issues tend to be uniquely local, are the Liberals expected to win most or all of six rural seats.

In part, the upsurge in Ontario is a product of the Alliance-PC merger. For example, an Eastern Ontario riding like Leeds-Grenville, narrowly won by the Liberals in 2000, should be a relatively easy target for the united parties, given that together they out-polled the Liberals by nearly 8,000 votes four years ago.

But also contributing to the rise in Tory fortunes is widespread anti-government feeling created by a long list of grievances -- gun control, environmental rules, soaring electricity costs, hospital closings, high taxes -- stretching back into the 1990s.

Not all of the irritants are the byproduct of federal policies or failings. But the Liberals are taking a lot of the heat and, according to some experts, so are city residents in general.

The result is that some alliances once created by geography are now determined by whether a person lives in the country or the city.

"Rural people are more likely to expect honesty from their politicians. They expect promises to be kept, they expect a strong work ethic and they expect their politicians to possess strong values."
                     -Faron Ellis, political scientist and pollster



"We relate to western farmers more than we relate to the people who live just up the road in Ottawa," says Angela Burgess, a Renfrew County campground operator. "Who was it who sent hay out West to help the farmers? They might live far away, but they're our neighbours."

Faron Ellis, an Alberta political scientist and pollster who has studied urban-rural attitudes and voting behaviour, sees it as part of a larger pattern.

"The rural-urban divide has become the most pronounced fault line running through the country. Rural people are simply less tolerant of what people in the city have come to expect from the political system. It bonds them no matter where they live."

His polling suggests, for instance, that the sponsorship scandal has created a depth of resentment in rural Canada that appears to have tapered off in populated areas.

"The level of distaste for the way the Liberals threw around those millions increases the further you get out of the cities and it peaks in the most rural ridings."

In part, Mr. Ellis believes, the antipathy is motivated by the precarious nature of rural existence -- because people live closer to the edge and are often self-employed, money means more to them than it does to salaried people living in cities. But his research also indicates the anger flows from the more conservative, traditional values found in rural Canada.

"Rural people are more likely to expect honesty from their politicians. They expect promises to be kept, they expect a strong work ethic and they expect their politicians to possess strong values."

In other words, they expect politics to work. In this way, they are less cynical than many city people, who more often have experienced first hand the inefficiencies and mistakes of corporations and bureaucracies.

So it's no surprise urban residents "are more inclined to simply shrug at something like the sponsorship scandal and say, 'Well, that's the way the game is played'," says Christopher Dunn, a Newfoundland social scientist who has also compared rural and urban attitudes.

Conversely, because rural residents believe politics can be made to work, they are more inclined to turn their anger into action. Voter turnout is generally higher in rural ridings, and because of the close-knit nature of their communities, rural voters are more likely to throw their support behind the same candidate than urban residents.

"It's too strong to say they vote homogeneously," says Mr. Ellis, "but it's not unusual to find 80-per-cent support for a candidate in some rural pockets."

That behaviour takes on more significance with the increase in the "rurban" or "urbal" constituencies created in the recent round of riding redistribution. These are the 30 or so ridings where rural voters make up only 25 or 30 per cent of the total, but because they tend to vote heavily for one candidate, are able to influence the outcome beyond their numbers.

For example, reconfigurations that changed the urban-rural mix in several ridings in and around Regina and Saskatoon are expected to strengthen Conservative chances to defeat the NDP. Similarly, the Liberals have become vulnerable in several Ontario seats -- Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry is one -- because of the potential strength of rural voting.

Not only Conservatives stand to benefit from the "rurban" phenomenon. The Bloc Quebecois' chances of unseating Liberals have improved in at least two constituencies -- Abitibi-Temiscamingue and Compton-Stanstead -- because of the potential influence granted to rural voters by shifting boundaries.

Probably nothing rankles rural voters more than watching politicians pander to the urban agenda while their concerns get pushed to the background.

Particularly galling to many is the perceived arrogance of bureaucrats and big-city politicians who see themselves as better stewards of the land than the people who live on it.



"Cities are where the voters are -- I get that," says Ms. Burgess, the Renfrew campground owner. "What I don't get is why rural people get labelled as complainers whenever we try to draw attention to our concerns. There might not be that many of us, but surely our votes count for something."

As if it's not enough to have their concerns ignored, rural voters also have to contend with 'in-your-face' urban issues, such as same-sex marriage, that are not even remote blips on their radar, says Mr. Ellis.

Unlike cities, where immigration and rapid growth have dramatically changed social dynamics, the makeup of rural Canada remains in many ways the same as it was a century ago -- white, Christian, independent-minded, centred around work.

"Things like gay rights can seem like issues from a distant planet to the rural voter worried about property rights," Mr. Ellis says.

Particularly galling to many is the perceived arrogance of bureaucrats and big-city politicians who see themselves as better stewards of the land than the people who live on it.

"When they tell us what trees we can cut down, how many deer we can shoot on our own land and what water we can drink, it gets me boiling," says Randy Hillier, leader of the 800-member Lanark Landowners Association, which has staged illegal hunts, barricaded provincial offices, clogged highways with tractors and chased government agents off land to get its point across.

"We've been making a living on this land for a long time. I think we know something about sustainability."

With polls suggesting the possibility of a minority government on June 28 and every seat assuming greater importance, the advantages of exploiting rural anger have not been lost on politicians, especially the Conservatives.

The party has been careful not to take its western support for granted, while at the same time concentrating on Ontario ridings where the Liberals are considered most vulnerable.

Last week, for example, Tory leader Stephen Harper traveled to Haldimand-Norfolk, a riding dependent on the beef industry, to take shots at the Liberals' failure to convince the U.S. to reopen the border to cattle exports in the wake of last year's mad cow scare.

"Cities are important but the Liberals are obsessed with downtown cores," Mr. Harper said, taking the opportunity to stir up a bit of resentment about a host of other rural irritants -- guns, supply management, high electricity costs -- he linked in one way or another to Paul Martin and the Liberal incumbent, Bob Speller.

In turn, the Conservatives have emphasized promises directly aimed at rural voters -- scrapping the gun registry, better relations with the U.S. to open markets, entrenched property rights -- as well as issues with indirect appeal: honesty in government, electoral reform, more powers for the auditor general and free votes in Parliament on contentious matters such as same-sex marriage.

Meantime, the Liberals' efforts to win support are being undetermined by their uneven record on rural issues over the past decade, and the party's mixed messages on flash points like gun control.

"It's no accident that important political change in Canada has always had its roots in rural Canada," says Mr. Ellis. "Even at a time when Canada is overwhelmingly an urban place, it's still possible for that dynamic to work."

 The Ottawa Citizen 2004