Tory majority? Why Stephen Harper is riding high in the polls

If the latest poll Environics has conducted for the CBC holds until election day, Canada will have a majority Conservative government under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Upon learning that Bob Rae's New Democrats had won a majority government in Ontario in 1990, a woman from Forest Hill was quoted as saying that she had never met anyone who voted NDP. Presumably she did not speak to her nanny about politics.  Her nanny, as the joke goes, was about to be sworn in as Minister of Community and Social Services. 

If the latest poll Environics  has conducted for the CBC holds until election day, Canada will have a majority Conservative government under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It shouldn't surprise Torontonians if on the Saturday morning after Election Day they overhear someone at the St. Lawrence Market say to a fellow shopper: "Harper won a majority. Did you see that coming?  I don't know anybody who voted Tory, do you?"

Environics polled a representative sample of 2,505 eligible Canadian voters.  Their message was pretty clear.

They said they are satisfied with the direction of the country, although a bit worried about the economy. They think the Conservatives are the best party to deal with economic problems. Aside from the economy, there is really no one issue that dominates public concern, so there is nothing opposition parties can tackle to differentiate themselves from the governing Tories and their other competitors. The environment, upon which Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion is hanging his hat, is cited by only 13 per cent of Canadians as the most important issue facing the country.

Despite having spent the summer explaining his courageous Green Shift proposal to the public, Dion's Liberals are not seen as any more competent to deal with environmental issues such as global warming and environmental pollution than their competitors. The numbers are remarkable:  21 per cent favour the Liberals on the environment, 20 the New Democrats, 20 Conservatives, 20 the Greens, and three the Bloc.  For all but the Bloc these are statistically insignificant differences.  While the Green Shift may be addressing one of the most important issues facing Canada, it is not addressing an issue that will be a wedge for the Liberals. 

Green Shift has gained little traction so far partly because economic anxiety is on the rise — and while leading-edgers may see the economy and the environment as a single issue, most Canadians still see them as two competing priorities — but also because the Green Shift has been positioned mainly as a tax.

Campaigning on a 'tax'

Predictably, Conservatives have called the plan a tax, or even a tax grab. But remarkably, and ill-advisedly, even the Liberals have referred to the plan as a carbon tax. Running an election campaign on a new tax is courageous for its proponents (a group that includes many environmentalists and economists) but dangerous and foolhardy to most average folks. I'm not sure I can remember the last time Canadians actually voted for a new tax but I sure can remember when they voted against one: John Crosbie's proposed gas tax in 1980. Public opinion generally reflects hostility to new taxes, as when the Mulroney government's GST, together with other factors, nearly destroyed the Progressive Conservative party in the 1993 election.

The Green Shift is the equivalent of selling voters on an algebraic formula when politics, especially electoral politics, is about simple arithmetic. How much money will be left in my pocket after I buy the basic necessities for my family every week? Pretty simple.

Taxes are instituted by majority governments who hope they will be forgotten by the time the next election rolls around. B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell sure hopes this will be the case with his "courageous" new carbon tax, which Environics polling finds has declined in popularity from 54 per cent to 40 per cent since it was introduced last spring.

Courageous policies and shaky leaders don't mix. And so far, Canadians have seen Stéphane Dion as a shaky leader. When asked which of the party leaders would make the best prime minister, nearly four in ten Canadians say Stephen Harper (39 per cent). Following Harper is not Stéphane Dion but NDP leader Jack Layton at 15 per cent, then Dion at 13 per cent. More devastating for Dion and his party is that the Liberal Leader is preferred as prime minister by only eleven per cent in his home province, where he runs in fifth place after Harper (28 per cent), Layton (18 per cent), Gilles Duceppe (15 per cent) and none of the above (18 per cent). Elizabeth May trails in Quebec with three per cent. By the way, as one might expect, the majority (52 per cent) of Albertans feel their favourite son is the best person to be prime minister.

To add insult to injury on the environmental front, 68 per cent of Canadians (72 per cent in Quebec) report that they agree with the current federal government's approach to dealing with climate change (that is, "regulate greenhouse gas emissions in areas such as oil and gas, electricity generation and other larger emitting sectors,"). Only 26 per cent disagree with this approach. 

On the other hand, only 42 per cent endorse the federal Liberal party's approach to dealing with climate change ("Cut personal and corporate taxes and to put on a tax on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas,"). The majority (51 per cent) disagrees with Dion's proposal. True, if 42 per cent of Canadians vote for Dion and his party on the basis of this single wedge issue, as four in ten voted for Prime Minister Mulroney in 1988 on the free trade wedge issue, Dion would be our prime minister this Christmas.  But they won't.

These people will split their votes among the Liberals, the New Democrats, the Greens, the Bloc, and even the Conservatives. The Green Shift will only buy trouble for Dion and his colleagues in this campaign.

Fear of majority evaporates

So if the Liberals have little in the arsenal to attract voters in terms of policies and leadership, what do they have? They can attack Harper and his colleagues as a bunch of scary right-wing, pro-American, pro-Bush authoritarians. You may have heard this theme before.  It saved Paul Martin's bacon in the election of 2004 and, though threadbare by 2006, it may have helped prevent a Conservative majority in the January 2006 election. 

But the days of such scaremongering may be over. Strategic voting, whereby New Democrats, Greens, and undecideds shift over the last weekend of the campaign to support the Liberal candidate most likely to defeat the local Conservative, is unlikely to be a major factor this October. Voters do not believe that if Harper and the Conservatives from a majority government after the next election their policies will be very different from those they have enacted during the past 2½ years.  Only 37 per cent think a Conservative majority would mean a major change. Fifty-seven per cent doubt it.

In short, most Canadians are happy with the direction of the country, believe Harper to be the most prime ministerial, and are not afraid of a Tory majority. What about the claim of many journalists that a minority government is a handy way to keep the government in check? Surprise, surprise: the public does not follow the line of the pundit class who argue for minority governments as a brake on the potentially authoritarian tendencies of our fearless leaders. 

Forty-six per cent of Canadians think a majority government would be best for the country; only 28 say a minority government is preferable. The rest don't know or don't see a difference. Minority governments may be amusing for political junkies, but for the large plurality of Canadian voters, a majority (presumably a Tory majority) to get beyond fractious, protracted, and often puerile parliamentary debates would be just fine.

So who will win?  Taking a page out of New Yorker columnist's James Surowiecki's insightful book The Wisdom of Crowds, Environics asked Canadians not just who they will support in the next election, but who they think will win. Here the consensus is very clear:  55 per cent of Canadians say the Conservatives will win; only 24 per cent say the Liberals. This is the momentum question and it shows clearly that most ordinary folks (including many Liberals) think the Tories have it. In my experience, the people have always proven to be the most prescient pundits.

Afghanistan a wedge?

Can Dion pull a rabbit out of his hat and turn this thing around? As I have said, I don't think scaremongering will do the trick. But there may be an issue he could use as a wedge: Afghanistan.  The majority of Canadians (56 per cent) do not approve of Canada's participation in military action in that country while only 41 per cent do.  More tellingly, only 14 per cent strongly approve of our current role while one in three (34 per cent) strongly disapproves of our soldiers being in harm's way in that distant and troubled land. Two thirds of Canadians (65 per cent) do not think the Canadian mission in Afghanistan will be successful. Only 28 per cent think it will.

Is it time for Dion to break his pact with the Conservatives and risk revolt within his own party by promising, like Barack Obama, that if elected he will bring his country's troops home as soon as possible after election?  Such a bold Hail Mary pass might save him but it is probably too late and the risks of implosion are probably too high. Moreover, since many Canadians feel conflicted about our role in Afghanistan — not wanting to abandon innocent Afghans to sectarian violence and thuggish theocrats, but also not wanting to sacrifice Canadian lives in what increasingly appears a futile effort - Dion may have a hard time turning Afghanistan into a ballot question even for those who have soured on the mission.

If you are looking for a historical parallel to all this, think back to 2000, when Prime Minister Chrétien called an election before he needed to because he saw a weak Leader of the Opposition across the floor: the newly minted Stockwell Day. He saw divided opposition (the Alliance under Day and the Progressive Conservatives under Joe Clark) and he saw a populace generally happy with the direction of the country and the performance of his government.  At the outset of that campaign Day actually had a higher standing in public opinion than does Dion today but of course during that campaign he became almost a figure of ridicule. Chrétien, initially criticized for his opportunism, went on to win a big majority government: just what the people wanted.

The only question now is, who will Prime Minister Harper be visiting in Washington next spring: President McCain or President Obama?

Michael Adams is president of the Environics group of companies and author of Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism.