Over the past week there has been an outpouring of reactions to the Syrian refugee crisis that run from concern to horror. The searing image of the drowned three year old pushed the issue to the centre of media attention at a critical time – in the midst of a federal election campaign. The ensuing reaction to this has been a pretty broad sense that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were emphatically on the wrong side of this and that it would have a catastrophic impact on their election chances. Subsequent polls and changes to the top of the Conservative campaign have fed the notion that the Harper government had made a potentially fatal political error in misunderstanding the Canadian public.
The apparently heartless response to this crisis and the continued insistence on the importance of bombing – rather than refocusing a humanitarian response – were seen as irredeemably in conflict with Canadian values. Humanitarianism and support for human rights have always been the pantheon of traditional Canadian foreign policy values and yet they seem so at odds with the current government. Our data shows that the values of the Canadian majority do indeed clash with those of the Conservative base; however, the assumption that the Conservatives have somehow made a mistake in reading these values is almost certainly not true.
Older, less educated and male Canada are much more attracted to the Conservative position than the residual majority. On this particular issue, a clear majority believe that more needs to be done with helping refugees and shifting attention from the military focus. Yet, in Conservative Canada, the reverse is true. Conservatives are more hawkish on the preferred focus of the ISIS mission (69 versus 26 per cent in favour of focusing on military efforts) whereas we see the exact opposite for centre-left supporters (72-25 in favour of humanitarian aid).
Also note the shocking difference between parties in terms of the incidences of those saying there are too few Syrian refuges. Conservatives are roughly four times less likely to agree that there are too few refugees coming from Syria. Only 12 per cent think that increases are the right thing, which is consistent with our past research that shows how Conservative supporters are consistently more likely to say that we are admitting both too many immigrants and too many visible minorities.
Syrian crisis helping Conservative Party
It would appear that debate over Canada’s response to the crisis in Syria has not hurt – but rather helped – Mr. Harper. This may end up not being true, but to this point in time we see that Mr. Harper has consolidated – and possibly grown – his base. At the current numbers, the Conservatives could easily win a minority despite being at 32 points. Reading media accounts and media polling, this would seem to be paradoxical. However, both give a flawed impression of Conservative prospects. The party has serious challenges but they are more than hanging in. Students of electoral history should note from the graph below that the Conservatives are now just a few points from where they were in 2011 at this stage of the campaign, which resulted in a (surprising) majority victory.
Furthermore, the Conservatives are now showing the highest levels of engagement of all parts of the political spectrum (which was not the case a few weeks ago). Conservative voters are much less likely to say they might change their mind (although seven per cent say it’s likely). There are no notable differences across other supporters. Overall, the ‘firmest’ votes are in the Prairie provinces while the most fluid are in Quebec.
So the Earl Cowans of the Conservative base are angry and emotionally charged (the Jihadist threat needs more bombing – not wussy increases to Islamic refugees!). As this debate has gone on the base has grown and become more committed (just wait until Lynton Crosby applies full dog whistle coding!).
Partisan divide on fiscal issues further highlights differences between progressive and conservative Canada
Further cuts to public services are seen as far less attractive than running a deficit. Fully 76 per cent of Liberal supporters and 72 per cent of NDP supporters say modest deficits to invest in infrastructure make sense. These results may explain why some NDP supporters have shifted Liberal in recent weeks. Justin Trudeau has helped himself with his proposed deficit-funded infrastructure spending program while Thomas Mulcair has hurt himself with his promise of a balanced budget, since Canadians are leery of focusing on fiscal rectitude in an economy where middle class workers haven’t seen a real wage increase in years.
Once again, however, we see that conservative Canada sits on the opposing side of the spectrum. While investment-over-balanced budgets may seem like a no-brainer to the centre-left, a clear majority of Conservative supporters feel that balancing the budget should be a top priority.
So how is it that Stephen Harper can stake out positions on issues such as the budget and the Syrian crisis that seem so diametrically contrary to the wishes of the majority of Canadians and still lead in the polls? This apparent paradox is at the heart of a continued failure of the progressive (or perhaps moderate) majority to understand that there really are two Canadas now and that they are largely incommensurable at the level of values.
It is a fundamental mistake for those people on the progressive side of the equation to assume that issues that are so clear to them – e.g., investments over balanced budgets (now), humanitarian aid over military intervention – are equally clear to conservatives. Indeed, these results suggest that these stances are completely alien in the Conservative camp. More generally, value shifts in Canadian society are moving away from small-c conservative values.
There is a dangerous delusion among progressives that Mr. Harper has politically damaged himself by staking positions that are clearly in conflict with the views of the majority of Canadians. In fact, the opposite is true; he has re-invigorated his base by alloying the values of his supporters, even when this runs contrary to what two-thirds of Canadians believe. So Earl is really angry and then the younger, more educated, cosmopolitan Zoës (one of Patrick Muttart’s progressive types) is at first horrified and then most likely discouraged at the policy failure (and then stays home on Election Day).
Canada’s two cultures are irreconcilable in many respects (e.g., you can’t balance a budget and make large investments in infrastructure) and even through the progressive camp vastly outnumbers its conservative counterparts, the country may continue proceeding down a path that reflects the values and interests of a minority of its citizens (a sclerotic gerontocracy?) unless progressive voters can find a way to re-arrange the political calculus of this country and elevate their emotional attachment to their more dominant values.
Regional and demographic results
This study was conducted using High Definition Interactive Voice Response (HD-IVR™) technology, which allows respondents to enter their preferences by punching the keypad on their phone, rather than telling them to an operator. In an effort to reduce the coverage bias of landline only RDD, we created a dual landline/cell phone RDD sampling frame for this research. As a result, we are able to reach those with a landline and cell phone, as well as cell phone only households and landline only households.
The field dates for this survey are September 2-8, 2015. In total, a random sample of 2,677 Canadian adults aged 18 and over responded to the survey. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/- 1.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Please note that the margin of error increases when the results are sub-divided (i.e., error margins for sub-groups such as region, sex, age, education). All the data have been statistically weighted by age, gender, region, and educational attainment to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada according to Census data.
Click here for the full report: Full Report (September 11, 2015)