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Infrastructure trumps crime for electorate

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In politics, there are certain enduring, predictable givens.

Older folk vote more often than young people. Summer elections tend to draw fewer voters than spring or fall votes. In a federal election, 40 per cent support among committed voters is usually a sign a party is about to win a majority government.

These are some of the constants used to predict, sometimes with success, the outcome of electoral contests.

However, in recent years, it's become harder to peg the issues that drive voters to vote at all or support a particular party.

Case in point: Winnipeg's Probe Research reports in its latest newsletter infrastructure has now solidly overtaken crime/justice issues and health as the major top-of-mind issue for voters.

This is a trend that first materialized in June 2013 and has been building for several quarters. In Probe's December 2013 poll, infrastructure now is top of mind for nearly a third of all respondents. That is more than civic/government issues and jobs/economy combined.

More importantly, it's more than three times the number of people who cited crime as the top, top-of-mind issue. That's remarkable because just a few months earlier, crime was still vying for the top spot.

Probe president Scott MacKay said there are a variety of theories about why infrastructure has taken off as a public concern and crime has fallen. First and foremost, there is less crime, and in particular, less violent crime, MacKay noted.

Although that is a trend that has been building for nearly 20 years, it seems the public is finally figuring out society is not nearly as violent or unsafe as politicians would sometimes have us believe.

Winnipeg, MacKay noted, has been the most skeptical big city in the country as far as that message is concerned. Poll results from other Canadian cities show much less anxiety about crime; Winnipeg has been the outlier in that respect for a long time, with very high levels of crime anxiety.

Winnipeg has had statistically higher violent crime rates, but not by a margin big enough to explain the elevated anxiety here, MacKay noted. However, even in Manitoba, that anxiety is lessening. And that could be a game changer in provincial and municipal politics.

It's important to note there are many different factors that can impact top-of-mind poll results. If there is a big weather event, then the weather can be a top-of-mind concern. The same goes with crime; a horrible and violent crime can often help that issue jump back up to the top of the deck.

Until recently, however, crime was a faithful go-to for politicians at all levels. The federal Conservatives have succeeded very well in rejecting hard data on falling crime rates in favour of histrionic anecdotal evidence. They have done this to galvanize a core vote that, for the last seven years, has been unassailable.

However, in the upcoming federal election (fall of 2015), the fact crime has fallen as an issue may turn out to be a problem for the Conservatives. Although fear of crime, and policies that seek to punish criminals more harshly, will play to the base, it's not clear the Tory base is as unassailable as it once was.

Engagement on federal political issues is fairly high right now. Although it is too early to predict whether voter turnout will go up in the next election, if Justin Trudeau's Liberals continue to ride on top of the polls, it's likely that will produce a small spike in the number of voters.

It's important to note Trudeau is deliberately downplaying crime and punishment in his policy platform, even in these early days. No politician who thought crime was a top-of-mind issue would ever publicly toy with the idea of legalizing marijuana. That is, however, just what Trudeau did, signalling he is either not interested in luring voters who are offended by the notion, or more interested in attracting new voters who like his anti-traditional stand.

Municipally and provincially, the shift in emphasis away from crime could be important to voting intentions in the next election, expected now in the spring of 2016.

No one knows for sure if incumbent Mayor Sam Katz will run again. However, as the candidate who had most vociferously staked out the crime and punishment agenda, the loss of emphasis on this one issue could be just another reason for him to retire from politics.

Provincially, the possibilities are even more intriguing. The ruling NDP are suffering significantly in public opinion polls, running well behind the Progressive Conservatives across the province. However, the New Democrats have most definitely pegged their re-election hopes on one issue: infrastructure.

The introduction of a one-point bump in the provincial sales tax in the 2013 budget was poorly conceived and implemented. However, it is a policy that speaks directly to the issue that Probe respondents identified as their No. 1 top-of-mind concern.

Is that enough to turn around the overall trend in opinion about the NDP? That, quite frankly, is an unanswerable question right now.

But it makes you wonder whether in two years time, if infrastructure continues to be in our thoughts, Manitobans will look at the PST increase in a different light.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 A8

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