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Why 'Stop Harper' protests are no canary in majority coal mine

Anti-Harper demonstrators protest outside the Conservative Party convention in Ottawa on June 10, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

There's been debate about how much push-back the Conservatives can expect from Canadians as they march forward with their policy agenda, majority powered. How much will Canadians resist accelerated efforts to wipe out the deficit? To expand jail capacity, cut party subsidies, continue with corporate tax reductions or buy new fighter jets? Will the Senate page's protest become a canary-in-the-coal-mine type warning signal, the sound of an increasingly irate 60 per cent of voters who didn't vote Conservative?

Highly unlikely.

For one thing, so far at least, the tone of this Parliament has changed. It feels like Question Period has gone off caffeine, taken up yoga, become almost Zen.

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Questions are still pointed, but not as poison tipped. Response patterns from the government side have been re-engineered, letting ministers come off as smart, decent people. There's no spiking the ball in the end zone, or other "excessive celebrations" as they say in football.

Watching Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird respond genially to a pertinent and precise question from NDP finance Critic Peggy Nash last week reminded me of how I felt when I was watching the courtly but very effective Liberal minister Allan MacEachen practice his craft in the House some 30 years ago. Any voter watching last week's Baird-Nash exchange would have come away feeling good about both politicians, I suspect.

Beyond the different mood in the House, there's another factor that's changed. The "how much it takes to make us irate" bar continues to rise. Consider:

» G8-G20 spending was excoriated by the Auditor-General just a few days ago, but you can hardly find hide or hair of that story today.

» A couple of years ago, ending public subsidies of parties almost caused our political system to come unglued. The Conservatives get two percentage points more of the vote, and now everybody's just getting on with this program

» The Prime Minister takes the company jet to watch the Canucks in their Stanley Cup final series hockey game in Boston? The general reaction I hear: It was nice that he took his daughter along.

» The Finance Minister re-tables his budget, signals program cuts, and the Treasury Board President speculates about user fees (what some might think of as taxes in thin disguise). Voters aren't all sure they like these policies, but seem inclined to judge at a later date, based on how things turn out. Not very many want to fulminate about or proselytize for them right now.

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All of this may feel vaguely worrying to opposition parties wondering how they will get some traction. But they have little choice but to embrace this new signal from the market and work with it: Voters want to get past the race to the bottom in terms of personal attack. They've had it with and will routinely tune out chronic acrimony, feigned outrage, manufactured drama.

Strong leaders, with clear ideas for the future, passionately argued: This is the recipe for the success enjoyed in the last election by Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, and on these criteria Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe fell short. In this Parliament, with Mr. Harper, Mr. Layton and Bob Rae, Canadian voters may see a pretty good contest of will, brainpower and communications talent - one of the best we've experienced in years. Based on the Prime Minister's speech to the Conservative Party convention in Ottawa this week, the policy choices of the Tories will provide plenty of room for other parties to differentiate themselves. While a competition on this level may seem less scintillating on a daily basis, it has a far better chance of reversing declining engagement than what has been tried for the past couple of decades.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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