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Will census cost Harper skeptical centrist votes?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a BBQ dinner during the Calgary Stampede on July 10, 2010.


In the United States, Republican candidates hoping to create a "big tent" opportunity for themselves and their parties have long struggled to contend with the different factions that make up their party's base, among them so-called social conservatives, libertarians, and fundamentalist/religious conservatives.

To ignore one of the factions can lead to independent candidates stripping away votes, a weak turnout from supporters you need to count on and a divided, squabbling party. Libertarian Republicans have often played an important role in shaping political outcomes, but rarely have they been more prominent than with today's Tea Party movement and leaders like Rand Paul and Sarah Palin.

Here in Canada, libertarianism has been a much smaller and less contentious part of our national political debate, which helps explain why so many eyebrows are raised at the federal government's decision to end the mandatory census long form. While its true that many voters might from time to time feel that government is too big, too costly and too intrusive, not very many are hugely animated by the idea at the opposite end of the spectrum: that the prescription for whatever ails us is almost always smaller and weaker government. Our peace, order and good government culture is fundamentally different from the "land of the free" society to our south. If it's true that we are edging closer towards the U.S. cultural model, it is at a pace measured in decades not months or years.

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This may help explain the awkwardness with which the federal government is handling its decision on the census. Before the policy came to light, there was no apparent effort to make the case that a signficant problem existed, or that a voluntary solution made any sense from a data-quality standpoint. Nothing about the way in which the decision is being defended after the fact speaks to a carefully thought out strategic thrust.

Instead, it looks like a reprise of the kind of thing Stephen Harper's Conservatives have done from time to time, where their math skills seem to have gone missing. Ostensibly, taking this step was meant to add yet another layer of cement to their relationship with what is probably the most rock-hard part of their electoral coalition -- the libertarian conservatives. However, unlike in the United States, there is little to suggest the Harper Conservatives faced any risk of defection of these voters. While they may always want less government, are there any other candidates on offer who promise more in this direction? So where are the votes that were at risk, and now aren't? How plausible is it that this decision will help make the Conservatives more attractive to ethnic minority communities, one of the rationales that's been speculated upon?

That this decision will annoy the left in Canada is probably neither here nor there from the Harper Conservative point of view. The real political issue is the impression it leaves with voters on the centre. It's unlikely many voters will flee the Conservatives because of this policy. But the hard work of wooing the sceptical, hesitant centre has been a key thrust of the Conservatives for years now, and decisions like this, which become characterized as ideological rather than pragmatic, have potential to undermine progress towards this goal.

Any one such decision may not influence many votes; the real issue is whether too many of them, over time, have a corrosive effect. Do they leave the accessible but sceptical voter feeling they can trust the idea of a Harper majority to govern for the centre, or not?

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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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