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Prime Minister Stephen Harper smiles during a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Wednesday May 18, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper smiles during a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Wednesday May 18, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Darrell Bricker

Toward more creativity in Canadian politics Add to ...

In 1965, John Porter published his seminal book on the workings of Canadian Society, The Vertical Mosaic. While Prof. Porter's book is usually remembered for its groundbreaking analysis of Canada's interlocking networks of elites, it also contains an intriguing chapter on the country's political system. In it, he laments that Canada's political evolution has been stunted by the lack of dynamism that a mature democracy enjoys when it has well-established and truly competitive parties of the right and left.

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Instead, he notes, Canada's politics have been dominated by brokerage parties (the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives) who have mostly focused on diversionary debates over national unity and regional interests.

Given the results of the 41st general election, are we now seeing the emergence of Prof. Porter's concept of creative politics - the idea that conflict between a party of the left and one of the right leads to more creativity in the ideas and issues that are debated? After all, we now have a party of the right (the Conservatives) and a party of the left (the New Democrats) as the major protagonists in our national political drama.

An exit poll of 40,000 voters that Ipsos Reid conducted on May 2 sheds some light on this intriguing question.

What is clear from the survey is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has put together a modern Conservative coalition that has the potential to be an enduring force in Canadian politics. This new coalition has a cohesiveness in terms of values that Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives (an unsustainable alliance of soft Quebec nationalists, Western Conservatives and Ontario Red Tories) never had.

The new Conservatives share many fundamental beliefs that mark them as different from voters who supported other political parties. They are economically focused, fiscally prudent, support smaller government, law and order, Canada's military, free trade, and our alliance with the United States. For want of a better term, these new Tories are a national coalition of "taxpayers."

Contrary to what their fiercer critics have charged, the Conservative coalition does not hold together on moral questions. They are divided on capital punishment, abortion and the role of religion in politics. It's clear that the Prime Minister knows this about his voters and does his best to avoid these issues as much as possible.

What does today's Tory voter look like? He or she (actually, more likely to be a "he") is older (mean age 50), more affluent, and less likely to be university educated. Conservative voters are also more likely than other voters to own a gun, attend church and live in rural or smaller-town Canada. If a Tory does live in a bigger city, he prefers the suburbs to downtown.

In terms of new Canadians, the Tories have broken through with immigrants who have been in Canada for longer than 10 years. These are immigrants who have developed Tory values in Canada and have switched from voting for the Liberal Party in previous elections.

While the conservative side of the creative politics dialectic has been worked out, the same can't be said for the progressive side. The new NDP coalition lacks the values coherence of the Tory coalition.

While some values for NDP voters are consistent, such as being desirous of political change, more pro-state, more secular, less militaristic and more focused on social policy, they also have contradictory views on justice issues and national unity. Demographically, NDP voters are more likely to be union members, francophones, female and younger (mean age 44). Interestingly, of the major parties, NDP voters are the least likely to be new Canadians.

The catalyst driving the explosion in NDP support in this election was the personal appeal of Jack Layton. NDP voters liked Mr. Layton's character (they saw him as honest and well motivated), and they were prepared to look past any questions about his competence on issues like economic management.

Additionally, NDP voters were more likely to see their vote as a protest against the status quo. Put another way, not a few NDP voters (especially in Quebec) were flipping the bird at what they saw as a calcified political system dominated by unpalatable choices.

If leadership was an NDP strength in this election, it was the biggest weakness for their main rival for progressive voters, the Liberal Party.

Moving past Michael Ignatieff's leadership, what will the next Liberal Party leader encounter when he or she reaches out to the 18 per cent of voters who stuck with Canada's "natural governing party?"

Today's Liberals are self-described centrists who are more interested in their local candidates, and were more motivated by ethical issues in this election. Apart from these few exceptions, today's Liberals are much closer to the NDP on values than they are to the Tories.

The bigger differences between NDP and Liberal voters are demographic. Grit voters are the more likely to be university educated, foreign born, a member of a visible minority group, and big city dwellers. The average age of a Liberal voter is 47.

Taken together, this shows that the battle for Canada's progressive vote will take place mostly in our major cities. For the NDP, the question is expanding their appeal to left-leaning immigrant and visible minority voters, mostly outside of Quebec. For these voters, the Conservatives are not an option, and they will likely vote NDP if they can't vote Liberal.

For the Liberals, the future is truly dire. What voters they have left would also be comfortable voting NDP, and the Tory coalition is unassailable in the short to medium term. All they can hope for is to make the right leadership choice, and that the internal contradictions within the NDP coalition prove too much for Mr. Layton to handle.

So, have we entered an era of creative politics? While it may take another election or two to work itself out, half of the dialectic is now in place. It appears inevitable that the other half is on its way.

Darrell Bricker is CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, a leading international public-opinion research company. He directed the exit poll of 40,000 voters that this article is based on.

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