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Some kinds of families carry more electoral weight than others

With so many different kinds of families, what's a politician to do?

Segment, my boy, segment.

Conservative, New Democrat and Liberal politicians all claim to be working for families, to embrace values that celebrate and support families, to be ever-ready with policies and promises to make life easier for families.

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But as Statistics Canada revealed Wednesday when it released the latest data from the 2011 census, there are many different kinds of families: dads and dads raising a child; multiple families crammed into a single home; families with children from a plethora of marriages; families with grandparents living with their grandchildren.

The 2011 census describes so many different kinds – with the old, married-with-kids model in relative decline compared to the alternatives – that the very word "family" starts to lose meaning. How do political parties, when talking about families, encompass the multitude of variations on the theme?

The answer is, they don't. Instead, they appeal to particular kinds of families, ignoring the others.

John Wright imagines a street in Brampton – a sprawling, growing suburban city on the northwestern edge of Greater Toronto with a large immigrant population.

The senior vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs further imagines two homes on that street. One has two immigrant families living in a single, three-bedroom house. According to the 2011 census, 10.5 per cent of dwellings in Brampton contain more than one family.

They are just starting out – looking for work, watching every nickel, wondering whether their children will succeed in school while also mastering English.

Across the street is a similar house, with a single immigrant family. They have a firm foothold on their new life in Canada: Their incomes meet their needs; they own their home; maybe they're planning to put a pool in the backyard.

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The Tories' relentless focus on economic issues, their tough-on-crime agenda, their open-door immigration policy that also cracks down on fraudulent claims, is aimed at "taxpayers who have arrived in the last decade or so and who have moved from multi-family homes to other homes," Mr. Wright observes.

The Conservatives also target other conventional suburban families with middle-class incomes.

"The Conservatives have positioned themselves around tradition," says pollster Nik Nanos. "Traditional families, traditional views on crime, traditional views on the armed forces such as the new Royal Canadian Navy."

Just one example: After the budget is balanced, the Tories will be introducing income-splitting, which will allow couples with children to pool their income, lowering the tax payable if one of the parents chooses to stay at home to raise the kids.

The NDP and the Liberals focus more heavily on that two-family home and other households where parents are struggling to pay for child care, or to care for aging and ailing parents.

They are also more likely to target less conventional families, such as same-sex parents. Mr. Wright observes that such families are more likely to live in city centres, which are dominated by the opposition parties.

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But in the last election, every riding in Brampton went Conservative, along with other suburban communities surrounding Toronto's core.

So different political parties target different kinds of families. But some kinds of families carry more electoral weight than others.

If the NDP or the Liberals are to beat the Conservatives, they will need to appeal to all the houses on that Brampton street, including the one with the new swimming pool.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More


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