Roy Green: On… Voting


Halfway through the election campaign, John Wright, Senior Vice-President of Ipsos-Reid, spoke of the real possibility, even likelihood, of a second successive federal election turnout of eligible voters dipping below 60 per cent.

I quizzed Wright. “Another election with fewer than six of 10 eligible Canadians sufficiently energized to participate in the selection of the national government of Canada may be in the cards?”

“Correct,” he exclaimed.

When the percentage of non-participatory yet eligible voters successively reaches such numbers, review is required. There is after all, no shortage of enthusiasm to address, challenge and debate matters of national relevance between elections. Taxation, immigration, healthcare, international military participation, the environment, cap-and-trade, and national daycare/ECE make up a short list of issues readily and willingly debated.

When I make that point to members of Parliament, the generic reply consists of something like, “Sure, but your callers are issue engaged anyway.” Fair point, except I can fill my phone lines with issues engaged callers who simultaneously declare their intent to refuse to vote.

Canada simply cannot afford to limp along with fewer than six of 10 eligible willing to consider the platforms of the Conservative, Liberal, New Democrat, Green and Bloc Quebecois parties worthy of detailed review, or even a cursory glance.

In last month’s column, I suggested the issue may not be voter apathy, but rather an unwillingness or inability by political parties to capture public imagination, trigger a participatory reflex and/or frankly engender trust. In the words of one Canadian, “New signs, same liars.”

Current turnout at the polls would suggest the “new signs, same liars” perception may indeed be on a collision course with reality.

Track federal election voter turnout between 1930 and 1988, and discover 1940 (69.9 per cent), 1953 (67.5 per cent) and 1980 (69.3 per cent) were the only occasions where the number dipped below 70 per cent.

It is notable the decade with the most precipitous decline at the ballot box was 2000-2010. Not once in the four elections of that 10-year period did voter participation reach above 67 per cent and, in 2008, dropped to the historic low of 58.8 per cent.

Were the number to skid to 50 per cent, the Prime Minister of the nation could, and likely on occasion, would be elected by less than 20 per cent of eligible voters. In 2008, Stephen Harper returned to residency at 24 Sussex Drive with 22 per cent such support.

A post-mortem of ballot box participation for the election of 2011 will be legitimate if numbers do in fact remain below, or even slightly above, 60 per cent. And since I can prove to you each time I turn on a microphone or write a column that there is no lack of involvement on national issues, allow me to focus on the political parties and more directly on their leaders. It is, after all, the unwillingness of political parties to engage in cooperative management of the nation’s affairs which forced this fourth election in seven years and it is the leaders who invariably and virtually entirely become the faces of their parties once the trolling for votes begins in earnest.

Let’s begin with the party judged most responsible for creating the dynamic for this probably $400 million exercise: the Liberal Party of Canada.

A party which as the writ was dropped had not yet managed to deconstruct entirely at least the emotional residue of adscam scarring, and which had been rejected by voters in 2006 and again and in larger numbers in 2008.

A party which had engineered the divisive political destruction of its once heralded “Prime Minister for life”, as a member of caucus described Paul Martin during the days Liberals couldn’t quickly enough jettison the three-majority-governments-winning Jean Chretien.

Martin’s metaphoric decapitation was followed by a messy, but at least democratic process of succession. The ineffective Stéphane Dion took the helm, promptly guiding the listing Liberal ship into a stormy 2008 election, while simultaneously firing torpedoes at his own wheel house. Green Shift, anyone?

Goodbye Dion. Hello Michael Ignatieff.

This time no vote involving rank and file members. This time the hierarchy would decide. Canadians yawned at the selection of Ignatieff. Even worse, they increasingly turned him off and tuned him out.

While the Liberal Party often polled not too far behind its Conservative counterpart, Ignatieff frequently trailed Harper and the NDP’s Jack Layton in leader evaluations and by considerable margins.

Liberal attacks on Harper’s Conservatives were predictable, repetitive and unconvincing. Particularly since Ignatieff and his troops frequently voted with the very Conservatives they vilified, or strategically avoided voting against the CPC when an election hung in the balance.

New Democrats were more inclined to stay true to their song book, rarely straying too far from the expected, thereby not creating angst among the base. Additionally, Layton discovered how to project likeability. Not an inconsiderable skill.

Layton understands the value of media far better than Ignatieff it would appear. Odd, since Ignatieff was a media person himself.

Layton rarely declined an interview and never took a negative encounter personally. There were many occasions when Layton and I would not agree on a single issue, but the NDP leader was invariably gentlemanly and seemed to genuinely enjoy the exchanges. Even when things went badly, a patch was applied without delay, as in one occasion when Layton became so infuriated with a question I repeatedly insisted he answer that he stormed out of the studio in mid-session.

After a few minutes of pacing the hallway the NDP boss thought better of it and returned to the studio, though still clearly irritated.
Days later I requested another interview with Layton. It was immediately granted. 

Contrast that with repeated requests for an Ignatieff interview. No reply. Yes, I have been critical of the Liberal party and its leader, but Ignatieff might have done well to emulate his NDP counterpart.

The Prime Minister? After five years occupancy of the PMO, there remains a real sense among Canadians that we just don’t know him. He doesn’t infuriate like Trudeau and Mulroney and couldn’t possibly perfect the shrug/grin like Chretien. Harper’s public image has been carefully tailored (sweaters and Beatles tunes helped), but while Harper is friendly, he is not a man given to projecting warmth. He is however a politician who answers questions—quickly, briefly and sometimes irritatingly for the interviewer appears disinterested in pursuing a point once he’s made his. In one such session scheduled for 15 minutes, Harper had answered each question I’d prepped by the 12-minute mark. There was silence on the other end of the line when I semi-jokingly said, “Well, what do you want to talk about now?”

Layton’s charm and Harper’s refusal to be drawn off message have paid at least some dividends for both men.

How though do Canadians judge the party leaders on issues of fundamental importance? The results of a national Ipsos-Reid poll for Postmedia News and Global National heading into the campaign speak to that question.

Someone you can trust:

Stephen Harper (42 per cent)

Jack Layton (34 per cent)

Michael Ignatieff (15 per cent)

Gilles Duceppe (nine per cent)

Someone who will get things done:

Harper (47 per cent)

Layton (27 per cent)

Ignatieff (17 per cent)

Duceppe (eight per cent)

Someone who has what it takes to lead Canada:

Harper (50 per cent)

Layton (26 per cent)

Ignatieff (18 per cent)

Duceppe (six per cent)

Someone who is best to manage during tough economic times:

Harper (52 per cent)

Layton (22 per cent)

Ignatieff (18 per cent)

Duceppe (seven per cent)

Someone who wants to be Prime Minister for the right reasons:

Harper (44 per cent)

Layton (34 per cent)

Ignatieff (16 per cent)

Duceppe (six per cent)

Someone who has a vision of Canada that you can support:

Harper (45 per cent)

Layton (34 per cent)

Ignatieff (16 per cent)

Duceppe (seven per cent)

Someone who has a hidden agenda:

Ignatieff (46 per cent)

Harper (39 per cent)

Layton (10 per cent)

Duceppe (five per cent)

A survey with an unweighted probability sample of this size and a 100 per cent response rate would have an estimated margin of error of three percentage points, 19 times out of 20, of what the results would have been had the entire population of adults in Canada been polled.

Going into the election the Liberal Party had largely engineered, its leader Ignatieff trailed Harper and Layton in all categories other than “someone who has a hidden agenda.” In that category Ignatieff assumed the lead.

How Canadians respond to Ignatieff’s April 20 statement to the CBC that “If the Governor General wants to call on other parties, or myself, for example, to try to form a government, then we try to form a government” may itself drive voters to the polling stations. Either to provide Ignatieff with as much populous legitimacy for such a choice, or to derail any opportunity for an Ignatieff occupancy of 24 Sussex Drive. Immediate email reaction to the Liberal leader’s announcement was largely in line with the “someone with a hidden agenda” polling question result.

The Ipsos leaders poll numbers though reveal another and perhaps more informative reality. In not one category did any leader score higher than 52 per cent popular support. Considering anything south of 80 per cent member support at party leadership conventions is usually grounds for stepping down, the Ipsos-Reid numbers should have alarmed Ignatieff and been of cold comfort to Harper and Layton.

The disconnect between political parties and the electorate, if voter turnout at the polls is an acceptable measure, has reached a level which cannot be permitted to remain.

This fractured relationship is not the responsibility of the voter. Neither the voter who remains participatory, nor the Canadian who has tuned out and turned off. 

Roy Green is a contributor to the National Post and the host of the Roy Green Show, a national program weekends on the Corus radio network.