Ask Canadians where they place themselves on the political spectrum and two-thirds say "the centre." This is to be expected. After all, why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle.
But what values and policies define "the centre"? Five federal elections ago, in 1997, the answer was "those mainly represented by Liberals." Today, the answer is "those mainly represented by Conservatives." In other words, the colour of the centre has shifted from red to blue, with several exceptions and implications for Canada and conservatives.
Earlier this year, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy asked pollsters Allan Gregg of Harris/Decima and André Turcotte of Carleton University to conduct a national public opinion survey on Canadian values and the extent to which they are in alignment with conservative values and policies.
Respondents were given a series of "value statements" and asked whether they agreed or disagreed with them (strongly or weakly on a scale of 1 to 7). Those receiving majority levels of public support were:
- Nothing is more important than family (89 per cent);
- Marriage, by definition, is between a man and a woman (67 per cent);
- Abortion is morally wrong (60 per cent);
- Learn from what worked in the past to solve problems (54 per cent);
- Better to implement small changes than all at once (54 per cent).
What is significant is that all of the above value propositions are more strongly associated with conservative values and policies than with those of liberals or social democrats. This is not to say that values and positions more strongly espoused by liberals and social democrats are not supported but, as shown below, the levels of support are for the most part significantly lower:
- Tolerance and moderation are what it's all about to be Canadian (50 per cent);
- People holding different values/beliefs make society richer (47 per cent);
- We have a responsibility to look after those less fortunate (43 per cent);
- Government action is the best way to solve economic problems (31 per cent).
That an increasing number of policies of the Harper government are commanding more support from voters (the majority of whom are centrists) is thus not surprising:
- Six of 10 Canadians support reducing taxes on corporations to stimulate economic growth;
- Seven of 10 support the government's spending practices despite projecting a $56-billion deficit this year;
- Six of 10 support abolition of the long gun registry;
- Six of 10 believe the government is doing "just enough" to deal with the recession;
- Eight of 10 think the military should leave Afghanistan in 2011 as planned.
In addition to the "blueing of the centre," the poll results provide several other insights. For example, they reflect a deepening ambivalence toward the role and capacities of government that may, in part, explain declining public interest in politics and elections. While 84 per cent of respondents say the government should play a major role in managing the economy, most don't want government to do more to reduce income inequalities or to stimulate economic recovery and growth.
Only 39 per cent think "government can be very helpful," and only 34 per cent believe the federal government has a "big impact" on their lives. When asked who or what they rely on first in time of need, eight out of 10 respondents say they turn to family.
With respect to sustaining and enlarging the Conservative base of support so as to secure a parliamentary majority, the poll results are particularly instructive with respect to the potential contributions of social and green conservatives.
Social conservatives should take heart that a majority of Canadians say they believe abortion to be morally wrong and that marriage constitutes the union of a man and a woman. But while a majority of Canadians appear to hold these more traditional views, a majority also believe that government should play only a minor role or no role at all in the regulation of individual behaviour or morality. This would suggest that, if social conservatives wish to retain and expand public support, they should rely less on urging government intervention and more on proposing non-governmental initiatives to advance their causes.
When the pollsters compared the values and policies embraced by the majoritarian centre with those embraced by mainstream conservatives, they found a surprising degree of convergence, except in one area: environmental protection. Canadian voters at the centre attach high value to environmental protection, while such a value is not yet strongly identified with mainstream conservatism.
There is no inherent reason why conservatives should be ambivalent on the environment, since conservation and conservatism come from the same root, since living within our means ecologically is a logical extension of living within our means fiscally, and since markets (in which conservatives strongly believe) can be effectively harnessed to environmental conservation.
Suppose, therefore, the "big Conservative tent" erected by Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay on foundations laid by the Progressive Conservatives, Reform and the Canadian Alliance could be enlarged one more time to include green conservatism as well as the red and blue varieties. The prospects of commanding even greater support from the electoral centre would be enhanced, as would prospects of achieving a majority Conservative government.
Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.