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Predicting what issues they will put forward is easier. As far as the Liberals and Conservatives are concerned, they can be expressed in a single word: fear
Every election campaign begins with the pollsters and the pundits attempting to divine the big issues that will decide how people vote. Some even try to predict what THE issue will be: the so-called “ballot box” question on which the election supposedly turns.
This is a fool’s errand. The electorate is not a single collective mind, but 27 million different people, each of whom may have many different reasons for voting as they do. Only some of these could be described as “issues,” in the conventional understanding of the word. The rest will be some idiosyncratic mix of vague dislikes, unspoken fears, hunches, suspicions and hopes.
We can try to ask them what will decide their vote, and they can try to tell us. But we can have no assurance their answers will bear any resemblance to the truth. People often tell pollsters what they think they ought to say. They may not know themselves — whether because circumstances change or just because people don’t necessarily know their own minds.
Consider a list of only the most obvious possible factors in a voter’s decision. It would include his opinions of the various parties, their platforms, their leaders, and their local candidates, with appropriate weightings for each, based on how well the voter thinks they would serve the interests of some similarly weighted mix of country, community (however defined: riding? province? sex? race? religion? etc.), and family — though their “interests” will involve some complex blend of economic, moral and symbolic concerns.
Of course, only a small minority of voters actually attempt any such calculus. Most voters go into an election campaign already knowing how they will vote, while the most conscientious undecided voters frequently end up covering their eyes and guessing.
So some skepticism is in order with regard to such familiar pre-election exercises as Abacus Data’s latest poll, in which Canadians report the issues of most importance to them are “the cost of living” and “health care,” followed by “climate change,” “taxes,” “housing affordability,” and “good jobs and wages.” I use the quotation marks, because these were on a list of issues from which Abacus asked respondents to pick. Whether the same issues would have occurred to them unprompted, or in the same proportions, is an open question.
What is certain is that in every poll before every election, as Abacus itself acknowledges, “health care is at or near the top of the list of what people say matters to them.” And yet you’d be hard pressed to think of an election that was actually decided by health care.
There’s a difference, that is, between a big issue and a decisive one. Voters may think health care is important — no kidding! — but its very importance tends to rule it out as a factor. Because it is so obvious an issue, parties have ample time to prepare for it, and yet because it is so intractable (nobody has a simple solution to the system’s ills and voters know it) they have little chance of winning on it.
Rather, each takes care not to lose on it, adopting positions broadly similar to each other and to the status quo. It’s rare for the parties to go to their corners and come out swinging over an issue everyone knew would be one in advance: the free trade election of 1988 is one of the few examples. The biggest scraps, rather, typically erupt over some wedge issue that catches fire mid-campaign.
To say there is no such thing as a “ballot box” question is not to say that the parties do not go to some lengths to come up with one, and to impress it upon the voters’ minds. Indeed, for some fraction of the electorate there may well be an issue that proves determinative, and given the exaggerated importance of swing voters in “winner take all” voting systems like our own, these may well decide the election.
Which of the parties will succeed in the attempt, if any, is hard to predict. On the other hand, predicting what issues they will put forward is a little easier. As far as the Liberals and Conservatives are concerned, they can be expressed in a single word: fear.
It is perennial Liberal strategy, already much in evidence, to appeal to fear of the Conservatives, especially when the Conservatives (as they usually are) are in opposition, and therefore to some extent an unknown quantity. This is specifically aimed at voters who might be tempted to vote NDP or Green. The message: only the Liberals can stop the Tories. Split the vote at your peril.
Meanwhile the Conservatives, if the polls remain as close as they are, are likely to run a fear campaign of their own, this one aimed at centrist voters, a.k.a. Conservative-Liberal switchers. In a minority Parliament, they will tell them, you risk being governed, not by the Liberals, but by the Liberals in some combination with the NDP or even the Greens. (Would this be the result? Who knows? Again, the operating principle is fear of the unknown.) Only a majority Tory government, they will say, can prevent this.
If past practice holds, the Conservatives will dress this up with a lot of dark rhetoric accusing the other parties of conspiring to “steal” the election after the votes are counted, which is constitutional nonsense: that’s how our system works. But the core message, that a Liberal minority government would depend on support from the parties to its left, has, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “the added advantage of being true.”
Those are, as I say, what the parties might each wish to make the ballot box question. The glory of democracy is that the voters are free to ignore them, and cast their votes on whatever other grounds they please: wise or wacky, profound or trivial. As they generally do.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019