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Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino met with veterans for eight minutes on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino met with veterans for eight minutes on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Bruce Anderson: Why are Conservatives making unpopular choices for older voters? Add to ...

For many Conservative MPs, the support of older Canadians is an essential building block in their effort to win re-election. Happily, for them, the Conservative agenda has usually been chock full of policies designed to shore up that constituency.

At the risk of generalizing a bit, older voters usually react well to public safety, law and order agendas, and appreciate a stable economy where a fixed-income standard of living isn’t threatened by higher taxes or rampant inflation.

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The Harper government has also been at pains to remind people of Canada’s proud history, including the role of our armed forces and military veterans. No doubt these efforts have particular resonance with Canadians of a certain age.

For the Tories, how important is this group of voters?

Elections Canada estimates that 3 out of 4 eligible voters in the 65-74 age group cast ballots in 2011. More than half of those under 25 didn’t.

An analysis by Éric Grenier for The Globe in 2010 suggested that if only younger voters voted, the Conservative Party would be “virtually wiped out east of Manitoba.”

Naturally, this scenario is exaggerated to make a point. But if the next election turns out to be a close fought battle, the point is relevant: Conservative candidates need to be able to count on broad support and high turnout from older Canadians.

That’s why some recent choices made by the Conservatives might raise eyebrows among students of political math, and possibly among Tory MPs too.

One of those choices was the decision to phase out home mail delivery. No doubt there’s an argument to be made about changes in mail use requiring a rethink about home delivery. But as cutting off home delivery will cause the most inconvenience for older voters, one can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t an alternative or two that could have been examined.

Certainly, hearing the head of Canada Post muse about how walking to get their mail would be good for the health of Canada’s seniors had to cause dismay in Conservative party ranks. Canadians experiencing a harsh winter need only look outside to imagine how this sounded to those older citizens who face mobility problems to begin with.

More striking still has been the sight of the government getting drawn into a battle with veterans. Over a tiny amount of money.

The race to balance the budget is feverish, but if I’m a Conservative backbencher or prospective candidate, I’ve got to be thinking there are plenty of better choices than closing down a handful of veterans’ services offices.

I suppose it’s arguable that if these offices truly aren’t needed, closing them is courageous, putting good policy over crass popularity. But why is this a hill worth fighting on? Not making this choice would have virtually no impact on the fiscal picture, and who exactly would blame the government for “over-servicing” veterans a bit?

The substance of the decision was at least more understandable than the style with which it was handled – or mishandled. Minister Julian Fantino took an odd policy choice and turned it into a political nightmare. Will Rogers said, “you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” But in politics there’s a Fantino corollary: it seems he can have unlimited chances to make a lousy impression.

As the news cycle shifts, few will be talking about these specific decisions for long. But if you could take a private vote among Conservative MP’s and candidates, I doubt there are many who look forward to answering questions about these policy choices come the next election, when they are campaigning for vital support among Canada’s older voters.

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacaus Data, a regular member of CBC The National’s “At Issue” panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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