Winston Churchill once declared that: ‘The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.’
It may be a snappy line, but these days politicians don’t have the luxury of disregarding anyone. The ‘average voter’ is no longer a thing. Even within seemingly clear regional, demographic, ethnic and gender groups, there are myriad shades and variations.
That’s precisely why political parties spend such vast amounts of time and money trying to figure out what voters want — or think they want.
In an election year, each scrap of voter insight is critical. That’s all the more true given the extent to which technology allows parties and politicos to tweak every plank of every platform to optimize their appeal.
For that reason, ENsight — Navigator’s government relations sister company in Ottawa — has undertaken a comprehensive cross-country survey to get a sense of the issues that are top-of-mind in 2015. After all, it’s the best indicator of the policies that will shape the agenda for whichever party is elected.
With a fall election looming large, we’ve compared initial 2015 election survey results with the issues that resonated most as Canadians exited the polls in 2011. Here’s a first cut of the deck:
Jobs, Taxes & The Canadian Economy
The Harper government received a ‘green light’ to move on economic issues. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper was still viewed as somewhat polarizing, Canadians, including his opponents, perceived him as a sound economic manager. With the help of then-finance minister Jim Flaherty, Harper and his government were perceived to have deftly handled the economic crisis. On that score, Canadians were clear: they strongly trusted Harper on economic issues.
In the 2011 election, the Harper government hammered home the importance of ‘jobs, growth and long-term prosperity’ with effective ad campaigns. Survey results showed that with a new majority government, the Conservatives could continue their push to lower taxes, stimulate job creation and cut red tape for Canadian businesses; ultimately, Canadians expected Harper’s government to remain a friend to businesses large, medium and small.
Canada on the World Stage
By 2011, the global financial crisis was still reverberating in Canada and around the world. The scale and scope of the crisis reinforced the fact that however hard sovereign nations tried to control their domestic economic fortunes, international capital markets and trade made that almost impossible.
Even though Canada and the Canadian banking system were less damaged by the collapse and the subsequent recession than many others, the toll on major trading partners — in particular the U.S. — made it clear that boundaries and borders no longer offered protection.
Voters in 2011 expressed an acceptance of that new reality, although the lingering mistrust of foreign direct investment continued. It was an issue that was set to resurface as the world economy, and demand for oil and gas and metals, began to recover.
Because health care is largely a provincial jurisdiction, and because economic issues trumped all others in 2011, it did not take centre stage in the last federal election.
The Conservatives promised to renegotiate the 2004 Health Accord, but to abide by the existing commitment to increase provincial funding by six per cent annually until that happened. They also won the day by extending fitness tax credits for children and adults alike, linking this to evidence that improved fitness could help to reduce some long-term health-care costs.
In 2011, Canadians, particularly aging baby boomers, seemed open to the idea of an expanded, two-tier health-care system. There were, however, some conditions. Many viewed Jack Layton, the newly minted Official Opposition leader, as the right one to preserve the Canada Health Act. In its platform, the NDP promised to train 1,200 more doctors and 6,000 more nurses. Election results showed that Canadians were willing to explore innovative options for health-care delivery if it increased efficiency and saved money. However, they remained wary of an American-style health-care model.
Jobs, Taxes & The Canadian Economy
Initial data from ENsight’s recent cross-country election survey is clear: Canadians see an urgent need for the government to focus on job creation, a balanced budget and lower taxes. And while Canadians are somewhat optimistic, they reveal significant anxiety about the current period of economic sluggishness. Many think we’ve gone from economic stabilization to economic stagnation and there is a clear desire for a government that will kick-start the economy.
While Canada’s economic prosperity is a top priority, there is a warning for the Harper government in the results: 35% believe the Prime Minister is headed in the wrong direction. Whether Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair can capitalize on this remains to be seen; however, results suggest that Harper retains credibility as a proven economic manager and as a safe steward in tough economic times. Canadians, by and large, indicate they trust him to handle the economy, balance the budget, and pragmatically react to plunging oil prices and a weak Canadian dollar.
Canada on the World Stage
Canadians still view international trade as an important component of Canadian economic prosperity. More than ever, Canadians have become a nation of ‘free traders’ who believe that government must look beyond the U.S. for investment and partnership. Only 17% of survey respondents believe that Canada should maintain its more traditional focus on the U.S. Fully two-thirds (68%) believe we must look to new economies and new trade deals for opportunities and growth in the future.
While international trade is important for respondents, no monitoring of issues could avoid Canada’s role on the world stage as it relates to terrorism and the ongoing fight against ISIL. 64% of Canadians see anti-terror legislation as a priority in the lead-up to an election, with 34% seeing it as an ‘urgent priority.’ Despite this urgency, only a slight majority of Canadians support the extension of the ISIL mission. Interestingly, respondents in Quebec, the province with arguably the most heated discourse regarding Islamic fundamentalism, expressed little interest in engaging with the overseas fight against ISIL.
Building on the opinion shift first seen in 2011, almost 70% of respondents today believe a new approach to health care — even a two-tiered one — was either an urgent or important priority for the government.
Although research suggests that Canadians have a somewhat more positive view of the national health-care system than they did in 2004, timely access remains a persistent issue.
Early polling suggests that voters recognize that the existing health-care system and its insatiable demand on public finances is unsustainable. Voters show an openness to at least considering a two-tier system that alleviates costs but maintains access for all. At the same time, with a voter focus almost exclusively tied to the economy, it is unlikely that options for health-care delivery are likely to gain momentum or form a high-profile component of policy platforms for any of the parties.