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Polarization, pessimism on the rise

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The third of Sir Isaac Newton's three laws of physics -- that every action has an equal and opposite reaction -- may apply to contemporary Canadian politics.

Frank Graves, founder and president of Ekos Research and one of the country's leading applied social researchers, thinks the sudden triumph of an explicitly right-of-centre Conservative Party is the reason for the equally sudden surge into second place of an explicitly centre-left New Democratic Party.

These two ideological parties have squeezed out -- at least temporarily -- the nation's centrist, non-ideological Liberal Party, which governed Canada for most of the last century.

Graves is quick to caution, however, that nothing is fixed and everything could change -- fast.

"The polarization is an adaptation to (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper governing from the right," he said in an interview.

"It is a dialectical response... I don't know how permanent these things are. It could be but it isn't deeply established yet and Canadians are quite centrist typically. The NDP is in the driver's seat right now for realignment, but I don't think they can safely form government without the Liberals."

Graves is the author of a series of multi-year, in-depth surveys of Canadian attitudes on a wide range of social, political and international issues entitled Rethinking Government. He has just completed another three-part investigation probing Canadians' attitudes on politics, government and ideology.

Historically, Canadians have been less ideological and more pragmatic than Americans, Graves says. "We looked at what worked rather than whether it was left or right." This pragmatic non-ideology was reflected in decades of Liberal and Progressive Conservative rule.

Both governed from the centre and there was little to distinguish between their broad policy thrusts. Both followed the majority consensus on "what was the right thing to do."

The takeover of the Progressive Conservatives by the Reform-Alliance has not led to a "blue-ing" of Canada as Preston Manning and others continue to boast, Graves says. It did, however, cause polarization.

"As Canadians became more cognizant that the new Conservative government they elected in 2006 was not the same kind of Conservative government they had in the Mulroney era or other periods, I think people began to feel a little less comfortable with the centre. By definition, a government which was running with explicit values drawn from the right almost created its own mirror image on the left."

Harper's "yin" has produced the NDP's "yang," Graves says. The polarization wasn't due to Jack Layton's personality. It happened because "the public were looking at their options and saying this (the NDP) is the clearer and more vivid response" to the Conservatives.

Further proof Canadians are being pushed into becoming more ideological emerges from Graves' findings on key issues.

"We have seen income inequality move from being a non-issue for the last 30 years to being Number 1.

"This augers well for the NDP and we see now that the NDP's constituency is also a kind of mirror image of the Conservative constituency. So if the Conservative constituency is overwhelmingly male, faith-based, college not university educated, affluent, older, focused in Alberta and a lesser extent, Saskatchewan, then the NDP constituency is almost the opposite -- secular, young, university educated, more likely to be women. On almost every one of these points, it's no longer the Liberals which are the opposite. It's the NDP."

On the key issue of how to motivate younger voters, Graves advocates compulsory voting. "It would force all parties to consider the entire spectrum and not try to suppress those they don't like."

Graves insists, however, that polarization is not yet permanent. "There's a lot of evidence that the public doesn't like polarization. If you could provide a compelling centre narrative that blends this growing concern with fairness and social justice with the idea of a healthy economy, that's the sweet spot."

Graves' findings on major economic and social issues demonstrate that Canadians are gloomy -- and growing gloomier.

For the first time in his polling, more Canadians (47 per cent) believe the country is headed in the wrong direction than in the right direction (42 per cent.) Also for the first time, Graves finds all-time high disapproval for the direction of the government (53 per cent wrong versus 37 per cent right).

The tendency of voters to be offside with the federal government becomes even greater when asked for their priorities: 60 per cent want taxes raised on the rich versus only 30 per cent who want further tax-cutting.

Canadians' pessimism deepens when asked about the future. Fully 57 per cent of respondents say the next generation will be worse off than their own while only 14 per cent believe it will be better off.

-- Last week's column mistakenly attributed to Stephen Harper criticisms of Elections Canada made by Gerry Nicholls. My apologies.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2012 A10

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