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University of Calgary to host an inside scoop on Canadian politics

Former prime minister Stephen Harper waves as he steps away from the podium after addressing delegates during the 2016 Conservative Party Convention in Vancouver, B.C. on Thursday May 26, 2016.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It is often described as the academic Olympics, but the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences that runs for the next week at the University of Calgary is actually more like an academic show and tell, where researchers from around the world gather to share their latest findings.

One of the many events during the congress is the Canadian Political Science Association's annual conference, running from May 31 to June 2. Here is a quick guide to some of the interesting findings applicable to the world of Canadian politics.

The Harper legacy

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Stephen Harper's near-decade as prime minister has provoked nearly as much academic debate as political. With the Conservative Party's defeat in the election last fall, it is possible to start taking stock of its true effect on the country. While it is a coincidence that this year's conference is in Calgary, it is perhaps appropriate for some of the first Harper retrospectives by political scientists to be at his alma mater.

Keith Brownsey of Mount Royal University will present a paper that says the Conservative government broke from Canadian energy-policy practice by refusing to involve itself in the energy marketplace, allowing provinces and energy companies to become more powerful players. This is consistent with other research showing that one of the Harper government's distinct features was a light touch when it came to many policy files.

Other sessions will be more reflective. One will feature thoughts from Ian Brodie and Tom Flanagan, both former Harper chiefs of staff, and Preston Manning, who led the Reform Party when Mr. Harper was just an MP. Another panel, which looks to be more critical of the Harper government, will feature four researchers from universities around the country, and the abstract promises that they will "consider the implications of Conservative government policies on Aboriginal organizations, civil society, immigrants and workers."

Elections

With the Liberal-led debate on electoral reform getting off to an uncomfortable start, the government might do well to consider some of the elections research being presented this week.

One study of voters by Jean-François Daoust of the Université de Montréal suggests that strategic voting, or picking a party other than one's favourite in an attempt to influence the outcome, increases when voters perceive that the most viable parties in their riding are polarized.

If you have ever noticed that city councillors are very frequently re-elected, a study, by Aaron Moore (University of Winnipeg), Michael McGregor (Bishop's University), Laura Stephenson (University of Western Ontario) will help explain why: lack of information. Using survey data from the last Toronto municipal election, they show that a significant factor in the high re-election rates for local politicians is at least partly the result of voters having little information about their ward race other than who is already in office. It might point to the importance of local media coverage to our democratic health.

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Gender still matters

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's remark that a gender-balanced cabinet was a natural consequence of it being 2015 drew international attention, but many of these conference sessions will show that men and women still have very different experiences of politics.

Erin Tolley of the University of Toronto will argue that visible minority women face particular challenges as candidates, particularly when it comes to media coverage. She finds that they tend to receive coverage that focuses more on their identity than their political ambitions.

A presentation by Laval's Catherine Lemarier-Saulnier and Thierry Giasson will show that media coverage itself is one reason voters might interpret politics through a gendered perspective. Their paper will present evidence that voters who are shown gender-differentiated news coverage are more likely to have gender-influenced reactions to politicians than those who do not see such coverage.

Social media and the internet

While the internet is often ridiculed as the worst possible place for civil political discussion, the effect of social media and online communications on political campaigns continues to evolve. While none of the papers address Rona Ambrose's recent use of Snapchat to share tips for juicing, several sessions will highlight the importance of the internet for Canadian politics.

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For instance, a paper by Shelley Boulianne of MacEwan University finds that social media are a politically effective tool for political organizing, but not necessarily in a way that parties will want. By looking at dozens of other studies, she found that social media are most effective at organizing protests and boycotts, and less so at getting people to participate in political campaigns.

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