Are Canadians more conservative? No

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Friday, Feb. 04, 2011.   Jeffrey Simpson

It’s widely said these days that Canada is moving politically to the right and that Canadians are becoming generally more conservative in their outlook on public matters.

It’s an assertion based sometimes on hope, often on conjecture, occasionally on fragmentary evidence, but never on serious facts and deep analysis. Indeed, the latest Focus Canada survey by the Environics Institute so completely demolishes the assertion that perhaps now it can be laid to rest.

Focus Canada has been around for more than three decades and, as such, provides excellent insight into whether Canadian attitudes have changed. Some of its questions go back three decades, others only a decade. What’s stunning is how stable Canadian public opinion has been.

There have been some drifts in public attitudes, mostly by Canadians becoming more socially liberal. Focus Canada finds Canadians much more tolerant or supportive of gay marriage and abortion – and less favourable to capital punishment – than a decade or two ago.

On crime – the Harper government’s big thrust – Canadians are way offside with the government’s approach. Eighty-two per cent of Canadians don’t fear crime in their neighbourhood, and 77 per cent aren’t afraid to walk there at night.

By a whopping 58 per cent to 36 per cent, Canadians prefer prevention programs and education over tougher punishments as a way to combat crime. This sort of approach, of course, is diametrically opposite the one chosen by the Conservatives, who keep announcing headline-grabbing but functionally useless “tough on crime” measures. Seventy-seven per cent of respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” support federal gun regulations.

If little evidence exists that Canadians are becoming more conservative on crime, what about other priorities? These priorities, it turns out, are hardly conservative favourites, if by conservative we mean smaller government.

Focus Canada’s survey finds Canadians’ top spending priorities to be education, health care, elderly programs, the environment and reducing child poverty. At the bottom are foreign aid, justice, defence, domestic security and arts and culture. The ordering of these priorities hasn’t changed much in two decades, except that support for defence spending – which soared with the Afghan engagement – has returned to the low levels of the 1990s.

Conservative-minded types don’t much like talking about income inequalities, but Canadians think they exist and are widening. A staggering 88 per cent believe the gap between rich and poor has widened in the past decade, and 81 per cent believe the government should reduce the gap.

By 55 per cent to 41 per cent, Canadians believe the tax system is “unfair” to ordinary Canadians, but they are overwhelmingly willing to think taxes are a public good to provide a good quality of life. By an astonishing 90 per cent to 4 per cent, Canadians believe they have a better quality of life than Americans.

Canadians remain passionately wedded to their health-care system. Asked for the most important symbol of Canadian identity, the largest number chose health care – above the Charter of Rights, the flag, the anthem, the RCMP and everything else. (The monarchy ranked at the bottom.) The only change in the past decade is the growing majority who believe people should have the right to buy private health care if the public system can’t provide timely access.

The Harper government can take heart that 52 per cent of Canadians are satisfied with the country’s direction, compared with 40 per cent who aren’t. That’s the second-highest satisfaction rating (after China’s) in the world. The Liberals’ counterthrust that Canadians feel worse off than five years ago and so should turf the Conservatives from office will be a tough sell.

Overall, Focus Canada shows a people very proud of their country (even in Quebec, where 43 per cent are very proud and another 43 per cent are somewhat proud), rather confident about the future, satisfied (more or less) with the country’s direction, supportive of the country’s institutions (except political parties), very favourable to immigrants, yet concerned about their delayed integration, and, by every account, not becoming more conservative.

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