A tale of two Canadas

Posted on December 29, 2015 in Governance History

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – The dominant values won in the last election but the unhappy tensions remain.
Dec 29 2015.   By: Michael Valpy

So here’s the end of 2015 with the carolling bards of politics singing about how Canada’s Snow White electorate was awakened with a kiss from handsome Prince Justin and immediately the rightful rhythms, movements and forces of progressive values reclaimed the land and everyone lived happily ever after.

Like all great mythological stories — or meaning-endowed narratives, to use the better term — that one has powerful elements of truth. But also a lot of not-truth.

On the one hand, the evidence is clear from the Oct. 19 election that the Canada forged on the anvil of Stephen Harper and his Conservative government — especially as their early hard-right rhetorical flourishes were translated into policy decisions — was a chunk of political state machinery at odds with what the great majority of Canadians want for their country.

Indeed, there was no mass cultural, demographic or ideological shift to the Harper vision, no Big Shift in how Canadians saw their nation or its government that would lead to the Conservatives becoming the new natural governing party of Canada.

What Harper offered was simply alien to most Canadians. And the election endorsement of the Conservatives by Canada’s major newspapers — the Toronto Star being the outstanding exception — was done in rueful, or perhaps wilful, ignorance of the late U.S. media theorist James Carey’s injunction to the press to “carry on the conversation of the culture, reinforcing certain vital habits of the community.”

What shifted on Oct. 19 was the appearance of three million more voters than in the previous election of May 2011 — most of them young and wanting to declare that the Harper government was alien.

What shifted were the significant numbers of small-l liberals who had voted NDP in 2011 and large-L Liberals who stayed home, but not this time. As well, in the last days of the campaign, what shifted was a significant chunk of the over-65 vote from Conservative to Liberal.

In a deeply thoughtful analysis of the election titled The Re-Instatement of Progressive Canada, Frank Graves, president of national polling firm EKOS Research Associates, points out that what primarily shaped Canadians’ voting decisions in October were values and emotional engagement — values that said Harper’s-Canada-is-not-my-Canada and an emotional engagement largely absent in centre-left voters in 2011. Emotion is what gets people to the polls.

Whether it was tough-on-crime, the passivity toward climate change, the diminution of the federal state to an unprecedented 14 per cent of GDP, the shuttering of research and evidence-based decision making, or a much more militaristic foreign policy with an unblinking pro-Israel stance, collectively those positions were increasingly disconnected from what the majority of Canadians considered their country’s core values and the public interest, says Graves.

Moreover, it was an engagement of emotions and values transcending feelings from previous elections and transcending generations — providing the first hint that the divide between older Canada and Next Canada may not be as deep and wide as previously thought. Old and young Canada together, along with much of the previously Conservative-blue suburban and new Canadian vote, became an awakened progressive majority who declared they had simply had enough.

I’ll give you an admittedly unscientific illustration.

In the 2011 election, the youngest cohort of adults voted at nearly half the rate they’d voted in 1993, something like 30 per cent. It was that tepid turnout from younger and progressive Canada and the en-masse march to the polls of old Canada that primarily gave Harper his 2011 majority, says Graves.

A week after the October election, I asked the 74 students in my University of Toronto third- and fourth-year undergraduate class how many of them voted. To my astonishment, 85 per cent raised their hands (which, deducting the 15 per cent of the class who were international students, meant there likely wasn’t a non-voter in the room unless some people were lying, which I doubt; it’s an honest generation). Globe and Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley, who was with me at the time, then asked how many had voted Liberal. All but seven hands went up.

So that’s on-the-one-hand.

On the other hand, the Conservatives likely were heading toward minority government through the early fall (until Harper jumped the shark with Islamophobia and “old stock” demagoguery), and we can speculate on what might have happened had the Paris attacks occurred before, and not after, voting day.

In the United States, what fuels Donald Trump’s march through Republican Party sentiments is fear of terrorism and Arab xenophobia.

Graves notes that those same fears have slopped across the border into Canada. Niqab Islamophobia and the published photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach coupled with reports that Harper’s office was slowing down admissions approval of Syrian refugees worked both in favour of the Conservatives during the election campaign and against them.

What also fuels the rise of Trump is the erosion of the middle class, the sense that America is moving toward the end of progress, and the public search for a strong-man leader to protect them. Those sentiments also are present in Canada, Graves says, and they played a role in supporting both the Liberal and Conservative vote. Harper most of all benefitted, as is Trump, from voters’ strong-man yearning.

Furthermore we can speculate on what the outcome might have been if both Trudeau and Mulcair, rather than Mulcair alone, had endorsed balancing the budget. It would have helped Harper a lot, the data suggest. The decision by Trudeau to opt for deficit financing to boot the economy was a tough, late call that seems to have paid off better than many anticipated.

The popular vote that gave Harper his majority in 2011 — 39.6 per cent — was almost identical to the popular vote that gave Trudeau his majority in 2015: 39.5 per cent.

Harper’s absolutist approach to government with the backing of not much more than one-third of ballots cast (and the support of only 24 per cent of all Canadian voters) was branded a debasement of democracy.

The argument won’t be the same for Trudeau because social researchers like Graves point out that Trudeau, for the moment at least, is speaking for a larger values cohort than Harper could claim to represent.

But the roughly one-third of voters who stuck with the Conservatives on Oct. 19 are real people, with a very distinct profile in terms of both demography and values. Conservative Canada is older, more likely to be male, less educated, rural, and focused to the west of the Ottawa River. They’re faring relatively better than their fellow citizens in a flaccid economy and remain far more attracted to the fiscal and social values of Harper conservatism than the rest of the country.

In other words, there are two Canadas, each with seemingly irreconcilable values, maybe bringing us to the necessity of seeing the country in a new light — as a modern, pluralistic society with no national consensus, with only limited harmony at the political level, with tensions and contradictions cemented into the basic operating DNA of the country.

It means that while the positive response to the new Trudeau government is the highest this century, the idea of common values in Canada is a chimera, a fantasy. The dominant values won in the last election but the unhappy tensions remain.

Michael Valpy is a senior fellow at Massey College.

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