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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Conservatives in power, but out of step Add to ...

It is asserted, by some of the learned and the great, that Canada has become a more conservative country. The Conservative Party has been in office since 2005 after all, with minority and majority governments.

The party possesses an irreducible base of 30 to 35 per cent of the electorate that, during an election campaign, can be pushed into the 35 to 39 per cent range. It has certainly tried to change the way Canadians see their country, its present and its history.

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Reading the latest Focus Canada survey from the Environics Institute, however, illustrates how little progress the Conservatives have made. If this survey (that goes back more than three decades) shows anything, it is how on many issues the Conservative government is offside majority public opinion.

With our voting system, and with an opposition divided into three parts – NDP, Liberal and Green – a government can be offside the majority of the public and still win. Which is what the Conservatives have done, like the Liberals before them.

The Harperites are keen on symbols of importance to their core and, they hope, by extension to other Canadians. No such luck. They are gaga about the British monarchy. Yet when asked about the importance of national symbols, Canadians ranked monarchy last, a pitiful 17 per cent – way behind the second-least-important symbol. (A Nanos poll recently showed how the $30-million spent by the Harperites on “celebrating” the War of 1812 completely flopped as a way of re-engaging Canadians with that bit of history.)

On more important matters, 23 per cent of Conservatives are skeptical about the reality of climate change, compared with just 12 per cent of the general population. Six in 10 Canadians say they would support a B.C.-style carbon tax, but only 43 per cent of Conservatives would.

The two most important symbols for Canadians remain health care and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, neither of which the Harper government highlights.

Support for bilingualism is growing. It’s up to 63 per cent nationally but is favoured by just 46 per cent of Conservative supporters. Support is lowest in Alberta, the Conservative heartland. The aboriginal part of Canada’s makeup is seen by about half of Canadians as an important national symbol, but by only 33 per cent of Conservatives.

On symbol after symbol, the Conservatives are in a minority.

What keeps the government in good stead (at least with its supporters) on broad attitudinal opinions is Canadians’ overall satisfaction with their lives and the state of the economy – except for low-income Canadians and Quebeckers, most of whom don’t vote Conservative. The wider country’s satisfaction is of long standing and, critically, was not much shaken by the recession.

Five years after that recession, the Environics Institute finds that 54 per cent of Canadians are “satisfied with the way things are going in the country.” That’s the second-highest level of satisfaction in the world (after China), and up from 45 per cent when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister.

Eighty-five per cent of Canadians report they are “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the standard of living, a number that has varied very little in two decades.

What about household debt, after the warnings by the government and the Bank of Canada? Some concern exists, 11 per cent being “very concerned.” By and large, Canadians are skating along somewhat insouciantly in the face of growing income inequalities, world uncertainties and high debt levels. They do believe, however, that their children might not enjoy as much good economic fortune as they have.

Perhaps the most startling (ominous?) trend is the disengagement of Quebec from Canada. Quebeckers had influence in every federal government until this one. No longer. On issue after issue, Quebeckers seem more and more disconnected from how other Canadians see the country – surely a reflection of the Harper government’s complete tin ear toward the province.

This intellectual disconnect has not led to an upsurge in support for secession; indeed, a belief in the negative economic consequences of secession has grown sharply in Quebec.

The number of Quebeckers who report being proud to be Canadian has fallen to 34 per cent, compared with 47 per cent when Mr. Harper became Prime Minister. The number of Quebeckers who think they share the same values as other Canadians has never been lower.

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