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Seems like money can buy political love

Winnipeg South Centre MP Joyce Bateman announces federal funding for the Waverley underpass with Mayor Brian Bowman and MLA Drew Caldwell, Minister of Municipal Government. All three levels of government have committed to funding the project estimated to cost $155.1 million.


Winnipeg South Centre MP Joyce Bateman announces federal funding for the Waverley underpass with Mayor Brian Bowman and MLA Drew Caldwell, Minister of Municipal Government. All three levels of government have committed to funding the project estimated to cost $155.1 million.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/8/2015 (1713 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It's a lament as old as time. When a government is about to call an election, its critics on the opposition benches and in the media complain it is "trying to bribe voters with their own money."

Regardless of how you might feel about the practice, the real question is this: does it work?

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper expected to dissolve Parliament this weekend and officially kick off the longest campaign period in nearly a century, he and his party must be hoping voters will appreciate their recent largesse. Conservative MPs have criss-crossed the country in recent weeks announcing funding for a wide array of projects, just as they did prior to previous elections and just as their Liberal predecessors did before they left office in 2006.

The centrepiece of this pre-writ spending spree is the expansion to the universal child care benefit, a $3-billion touch that provides parents with $160 per month for every child they have under the age of six and $60 per month for every child between the ages of 6 and 17. Since these cheques were backdated to January, the windfall for some families was substantial.

The Conservative government's rollout of the new UCCB has been roundly criticized as being shameless in its intent, with Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre knocked for referring to the cheque mailout as "Christmas in July" and for wearing a blue golf shirt with a Conservative party logo when he announced the payments would be soon landing in parents' mailboxes. Beyond the bell jar where partisans and political junkies like to argue about these kinds of things, one has to wonder whether the arrival of these cheques will have a real, tangible effect on people's voting intentions. So far, the reviews are mixed.

An Ipsos survey conducted for Global News this week found Conservative support increased five points in the past month, to 33 per cent, with the recently struggling party statistically tied with the New Democrats, who sit at 34 per cent support.

However, the polling firm believes the UCCB is not necessarily the main driver of this sudden increase in Conservative support.

Among those with children under 18 -- the very people who would be receiving these cheques -- the Conservatives and NDP are tied (34 per cent each).

Among those with no children in the household, the NDP holds a two-point lead (34 per cent to 32 per cent respectively). Furthermore, only 14 per cent of people with children at home said that receiving the cheque makes them "more likely" to vote for Stephen Harper's Conservatives compared to 18 per cent who said it makes them "less likely" to do so. The vast majority of parents (68 per cent) claim the UCCB has no effect on their voting intentions.

This may be what people say, but the impact of the UCCB payments, combined with additional spending on local initiatives, may eventually power a shift toward the Conservatives -- particularly among smaller and more critical demographic groups, such as swing voters with children. It may also prime those who do not follow politics closely enough to hear the constant criticisms of the UCCB, but who will certainly appreciate having a large cheque from the government suddenly arrive in the mailbox. The Conservatives are clearly counting on this.

Rebates from government are relatively rare, however, so there is not a clear pattern of success when governments give people a portion of their money back.

In 2008, the U.S. Congress issued "stimulus cheques" to Americans in early 2008 as the global recession began. This was supported by both congressional Democrats and Republicans and quickly approved by then-Republican president George W. Bush. Even though this was a bipartisan initiative, it appeared to have zero effect on anyone's popularity. After the cheques were mailed out in the spring of 2008, Bush's approval rating continued to scrape along in the 28 to30 per cent range in Gallup polls, while the approval rating of the Democratic-controlled Congress plummeted to 14 per cent by July from 21 per cent in March 2008.

In Manitoba, the last large-scale rebate from a government body came in 2011, when Manitoba Public Insurance issued rebates to drivers. It is important to note this was not a clearly political directive, as the provincial Public Utilities Board ordered MPI to issue the rebates after it had generated a surplus from insurance premiums. Curiously, though, the NDP did benefit from an uptick in public support that coincided with the arrival of the payments. The cheques were issued in April and May 2011, and support for the NDP in Probe Research quarterly surveys jumped to 44 per cent in June of that year from 35 per cent in March 2011.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But governments of all stripes will continue to spread the financial love when it comes time to vote. One rebate, tax break or spending initiative can't be measured in isolation, but cumulatively they add up as a potential bonus to the party cutting the cheque.


Curtis Brown is the vice-president of Probe Research Inc. His views are his own.

curtis@probe-research.com Twitter: @curtisatprobe


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