Friday, January 15, 2010

Politics: Back to Reality in Canada

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have to admit that I found the recent political polls showing the Conservative and Liberal parties neck-in-neck in Canada greatly comforting. It's not because of my policy and ideological biases, but because I just didn't see around me what polls had been showing in October--which was an imminent majority government for the Conservatives. While few except Liberal partisans seemed to be especially impressed with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, in particular his move to prompt an election last fall, neither was I hearing much affection for Stephen Harper. As Richard Colvin's parliamentary testimony seemed to credibly mark the present government--as well as its Liberal predecessor--as war criminals for turning over Afghan detainees to be tortured, rumblings against the government seemed to be mounting more than movement in the polls. Either political sentiment in Toronto was radically different than the rest of the country--a common contention, but one that didn't seem to fly in this case considering the interest in conservative potential mayoral candidates--or something was out of whack.

The zeitgeist on the drop in the gap between the Conservatives and the Liberals from 15 points to less than two in less than three months is that the prorogation of parliament is the main cause. The Harper government had been slowly losing credibility, in part for the lackluster economy but increasingly for what was coming out in the Afghan inquiry, and prorogation--which amongst other things ended the Afghan inquiry--was a "straw that broke the camel's back," solidified the mistrust of the Harper government, and brought it back to Earth in the polls. Perhaps what I was sensing in the Toronto electorate was just slightly ahead in time compared with the national trend.

This explanation seems consistent with the fact that no single other party has substantially gained from the drop in popularity of the Conservatives. While the Liberals are up by 3 points in the Ekos poll, voters are also moving to the New Democrats, the Greens, and the Bloc Quebecois (each up by 1 points in Ekos). People may want to move away from the Conservatives, but they aren't convinced where else they should go. Basically, the polls are back where they were at during mid-year, before anyone claimed to want an election or prorogation--and they are back in equilibrium with what I think I'm hearing around me.

My impression of Canadian voters is that they are in many ways more demanding than their neighbours to the south. If a party isn't working to the benefit of the country--whether for partisan reasons or incompetence--it isn't long before they pay for it in the polls--whether the ballot box or the research firm. I was starting to wonder if maybe somehow Stephen Harper's Conservatives had somehow broken free of this accountability this fall. The latest polls indicate that they have not.

What these polls really seem to mean is that all the political parties in Canada will need to work harder to gain the support of the public to improve their electoral position before another election (which doesn't seem likely to be called anytime soon). Having all parties on their best behavior can't be a bad thing.

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