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What will our ballot question be?


In the United States, a "ballot question" is exactly that: a question that appears on a referendum ballot, to which a voter must answer "yes" or "no." In Canadian general elections, the concept of a ballot question is a much more mystical thing. It doesn't show up on the piece of paper handed to each voter on election day, but it can determine the course of history.

The term has come to mean the unspoken issue that will be on the top of voters' minds when they cast their ballots. There is no way of knowing what the Jan. 23 ballot question will truly be until the election results are in, when exit polls and other opinion surveys can ask voters why they marked their ballots the way they did.

However, in the current campaign, the leaders are all vying to suggest what the ballot question should be, and media commentators are putting in their two cents' worth as well:

The parties:

Paul Martin's Liberals would like voters to focus on the different values demonstrated by the Liberals and the Conservatives. In that case, the ballot question would be: "Which leader do you trust to deliver the kind of Canadian government you really believe in?"

If that is indeed the question voters are thinking about when they pick up the Elections Canada pencil, Martin is gambling that he, not Stephen Harper, will be the answer they come up with. He's trying to guarantee that by calling Harper a "fend-for-yourself" leader who would abandon programs important to Canadians.

Under Harper, the Conservatives would prefer voters went into the ballot box thinking "Isn't it time for a change in government?" The leader elaborated on this theme to the Canadian Press recently, citing the "culture of scandal after scandal" under the Liberals in the past 12 years. "A Conservative vote on Jan. 23rd is a vote to clean up Ottawa," he said. "The current government in Ottawa has benefited party operatives and privileged insiders, but hasn't served the interests of hard-working Canadians� A Conservative government will stand up for people who work hard, pay their taxes, and play by the rules."

The New Democratic Party's leader, Jack Layton, has a one-word answer when asked what he believes the ballot question will be. On Jan. 16, he told reporters: "For ordinary people and working families, I think that it is coming down to trust. Who do you trust to fight for working families? Who do you trust to put ordinary people at the head of the line, instead of being at the back of the pack, at the back of the line in the next Parliament? Who do you trust on the values that you care about?"

The Bloc Qu�b�cois's ballot question is always the same: "Which party will best represent Quebec's interests in Ottawa?" This time out, though, leader Gilles Duceppe has to fight the growing sense by polled Quebecers that the answer is "the Conservatives."

Jim Harris, leader of the Green party, thinks the election should be about giving his party a chance to change the environmental and economic status quo without having to vote for the same old choices. "If we spend less time on partisan bickering, we can spend more time on planning where we want to be in 20 years," the party's website says. "We need a plan for tomorrow, today." Paraphrasing that, the Greens' idea of the ballot question might be: "Isn't it time to try voting for a truly new option?"

The pundits:

James Travers, Toronto Star columnist, writing in the newspaper on Jan. 10: "Worse still for Liberals, last night's debate made it abundantly clear this election has found its ballot question: Are Canadians comfortable enough with Harper to deny a fifth mandate to a tired, ethically suspect ruling party? Outside urban cores, the answer increasingly is "yes." Change is in the winter wind."

Barbara Yaffe, Vancouver Sun columnist, appearing on Newsworld Jan. 17: "There is no ballot-box question. There is just this ballot-box yearning from coast to coast to coast to punish the Liberals."

Dan Leger, assistant managing editor of the Chronicle Herald, on the same Newsworld panel: "When it comes right down to it, people are asking themselves, is it time to punish the Liberals? Is it time for a sea change in Canadian politics that takes us out of the last 12 years and into a new era?"

The people:

Again, only the election results themselves, accompanied by post-vote polling questions, will tell us what the big ballot question turns out to be. But a recent Decima Research poll gave some hints about some smaller ones.

The Jan. 13-15 survey asked more than 5,000 Canadians what factors are making them more or less likely to vote for various parties. The answer can be summed up this way: "Show us the money."

The poll found 29 per cent of respondents saying they were more likely to vote Conservative because of the party's promise to cut the Goods and Services Tax from seven to five per cent. That was the factor bringing the strongest pro-Conservative response, though five other factors were cited by more than 20 per cent of respondents each: the income trust leak investigation, Conservative promises to bring more accountability to government, a Conservative ad aimed at Liberal "entitlements," a Liberal campaign organizer's "beer and popcorn" comment, and the Conservatives' "law and order" platform.

The factor making 23 per cent of voters more likely to vote Liberal was the party's pledge to cut income taxes, made before the election call (Harper's party has said it will roll back some of those cuts in favour of other types of tax reductions). The next-biggest factor increasing support for the Liberals – at 21 per cent – was the Conservative position on same-sex marriage.

The Decima online Election Panel poll has a margin of error of 1.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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