In The News

Why the Liberals struck a chord with voters

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In electing Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to a majority government, Canadians are seeking a return to the values they believe have traditionally defined our society: civility, kindness, inclusion, collaboration. This quest to feel good about ourselves will inform how the new government’s policies and actions, in every sector, will be judged.

Collective nostalgia for better days is a common human response to periods of economic hardship and uncertainty. Mr. Trudeau’s messages of hope and ‘sunny ways’ resonated strongly, all the more in contrast to Stephen Harper’s perceived coolness and reserve.

Nor did it hurt that Mr. Trudeau bears a surname that for many older voters still evokes a ‘golden age’ for Canada, a time when the country punched above its weight internationally and took pride in its domestic record of inclusion.

These are just some of the insights revealed in four waves of research and 12 focus groups conducted nationally by Ensight Canada during and immediately after the campaign. In each case, we demographically replicated the population of every province to ensure the accuracy of reach and results.

In this way, we established that voters were not rejecting the Conservative Party outright. Rather, they were repudiating a leader and a tone that did not align with who they aspire to be. That was particularly true for first-generation citizens who expressed a strong sense of what it means to be Canadian.

Tone and perception were big — if soft — issues. Even those who agreed with Mr. Harper’s stance on the niqab criticized his attempts to make the issue socially divisive. The perception that he had ‘muzzled’ free expression in the cabinet and among MPs and government scientists also disturbed voters. They support a more ‘Canadian,’ more collaborative approach to issues such as climate change and the rights of First Nations.

In economic terms, our research revealed an openness to a more visionary agenda. Few of the voters we engaged had any specific knowledge of the Liberals’ economic plan. But neither did they express interest in details, even though longer-term prospects for the economy are consistently flagged as a source of concern.

Embedded in all of this are two distinct sets of expectations for the new government and its leader. On one hand, voters have relatively low expectations that Mr. Trudeau can realistically accomplish all he has promised. Focus-group participants told Ensight that they marked their ballots based on vision and values rather than specific policies.

The counterpoint to these modest policy expectations is a set of very high ones when it comes to both tone and ethical conduct. Voters said they are looking for policies that reflect the social values they prize. That portends a potentially powerful backlash if the new government falls short or disappoints in that respect.

It also translates into an emphasis on economic stimulus and job creation, social programs, environmental measures and stakeholder consultation — all of which have been presented as Liberal priorities. Canadians, it seems, have succumbed to austerity fatigue and are willing to try other options.

The new government will also be expected to reflect the same degree of transparency and disclosure that Canadians have come to demand from the private sector. Just as companies have learned the importance of stakeholder engagement and consultation, the Liberal government will have to follow a parallel path.

For many voters, after nearly 10 years of Conservative stewardship, it was simply time for a change. They said Mr. Trudeau came closest to achieving the right blend of optimism and confidence. As the results showed, the NDP and Tom Mulcair were viewed as a worthy and important third party, but not a ruling party.