Thursday, January 14, 2010

The drip drip of negative perception

An examination of the rise and fall of the Liberal Party of Canada from 1993 to 2006 would show that, despite what the polling numbers may have shown, it wasn’t as if the party suddenly and surprisingly dropped off a cliff in 2004 when the tsunami that was the sponsorship scandal shook the party. While adscam was certainly the straw that broke the back of the party, it wouldn’t have done it alone.

It was a steady drip drip that had built up in the public consciousness over the entirety of the Liberal tenure in government that led to the public beginning to move away from the party in 2004, and finally backing away entirely in 2005/06. There were many unpopular decisions and scandals, both real and imagined, that hit the Liberals over those 13 or so years. I won’t go through and catalog the list. And while each one was seemingly weathered with little to no lasting hit in popular support, each did register in the public consciousness, a festering concern or disappointment that, while not enough to change voter support, did shape their view of the party, building with each additional incident.

Despite growing displeasure over various Liberal decisions and actions, support held for some time for a number of reasons: each incident in isolation wasn’t enough to change minds, the government was doing many other good things people liked, and there was no compelling alternative to move support to if people were so inclined, whether it was the divided right or a weak Stockwell Day in 2000.

For many, sponsorship was the proverbial last straw that served to put all those other more minor scandals and other problems they’d had with the Liberals over the years into a linking narrative, triggering a change in voter support. But even with a united right, it wasn’t enough in 2004 to move government to the Conservatives. It wasn’t until 2005/06 when that increasing displeasure with the Liberals, sealed as mentioned by sponsorship, was combined with a Conservative platform that gave people a place to feel comfortable parking their votes – tax relief, a relatively moderate policy platform – that the public finally fully left the Liberals and elected a new government.

The lessons to be learned? It’s not any one single incident, but a drip dip of actions and events that shape a perception and a narrative, that will move public opinion. And they won’t move en masse until they have somewhere compelling to move to.

Why the history lesson?

I took this extended trip down memory lane because I see many interesting parallels to today’s political situation.

Looking at the past four to five years, there have been a myriad of hits the Conservatives have taken, from listeriosis to isoptopes and cancer is sexy all the way through to detainee torture and prorogation, with many more of varying sizes and import. By and large, up to the current backlash over prorogation, each past incident hasn’t generally caused a lasting decline in Conservative support.

That’s because each incident, on its own, wasn’t enough to trigger a meaningful change in voter intention, given the other things the government was doing that people agreed with, and given the alternatives on the market. But each incident did serve to help move and shape public perception of the Conservative Party in the public consciousness. It builds a narrative.

Looking at prorogation initially, in isolation, I didn’t see it as a major game-changer. However, a spate of recent polls, including most recently from Ekos, The Strategic Counsel and Angus Reid, would seem to be proving me wrong, all showing sharp declines in Conservative support.

It appears that, for many Canadians, the prorogation affair may be that proverbial straw that causes their scales to turn against the Conservatives. It’s not just prorogation itself, but prorogation builds on top of the narrative caused by all those other little incidents and scandals over the last few years that Harper largely got away with at the time. Prorogation serves to solidify the negative impression that all those other incidents had created in the minds of many Canadians and has led many of them to the point where they are ready to change their votes. The government’s negatives begin to outweigh the positives.

Of course, that galvanizing event that finally moves public opinion is only half the equation. As we’ve seen, if they’re going to move to somewhere en masse, they need to have somewhere to go to. That’s borne out by those same polling numbers. Yes, the gap between the Conservatives and the Liberals has closed substantially, from as much as 10 to 15 points to, in two cases, a statistical tie. But the gap was largely closed by a collapse of the Conservative vote. Liberal support has gotten a small uptick, but not much of one, still languishing around the 30 per cent level which, until last fall’s freefall, was the historical bottom of Liberal support for the last five or so years.

It brings me back to my steady message of these last few weeks: if the Liberals are to capitalize on this opportunity that prorogation has given them, public anger with the Conservatives will only take them so far. The public didn’t finally turn on the Liberals in 2005/06 until the Conservatives gave them a strong alternative leader with a compelling, measured moderate policy agenda that they could relate to. They’re not going to leave the Conservatives in lasting and meaningful numbers until we do the same.

Lest I sound too pessimistic, I do have optimism on that front. Michael Ignatieff’s campus tour is going very well, and getting good reviews. I think the “back to work” strategy on January 25th of public policy forums is a good one with the potential to put meat on the bones, but they must include real ideas and proposals, not just platitudes, and make it accessible to those outside the capital, even if only by Web cast. I’ll be watching for that. And, of course, the Thinker’s Conference in March. I’m also hearing that the party is undertaking a process that will lead to the generation of real ideas for democratic reform. It may not come as soon as many would like, but it does appear to be on the radar.

In the end, it will be a major challenge to both sustain the displeasure that prorogation has generated in the Conservatives, as well as convert that displeasure into positive support. Things can change quickly in politics; I think the last three weeks are clear evidence of that. Whether this will be 2004 or 2005/06 will only be known with time.

Either way though, it’s safe to say the drip-drip of scandal has worn heavily on the once formidable Conservative brand, with prorogation causing a heavy hit. For maybe the first time in four years, people are at least ready to consider change.

The only question is, are we ready to give it to them?

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Chrystal Ocean said...

This has become one of my favourite Liberal blogs. It's almost always written in a reasoned, thoughtful manner.

Regarding the history lesson, you should probably add this:

Paired with voters' views of the sponsorship scandal in 2006 was the Conservatives' promise to ring in a new era of government accountability. In other words, a promise to address issues of process, such as improvements to access to information and other democratic reforms. Without that, there was no sufficient reason for voters who were primarily put off by the Liberals due to the scandal to instead turn to the Conservatives.

MichaelB said...

There is another interesting lesson from history to recall. John Diefenbaker captured a whopping majority from the Liberals after they were in for years. Dief (an angry combative fellow by all accounts) also won huge support in Quebec (Harper might have done the same if it were not for the Bloc). Eventually, years of disillusion and eventually a spy scandal sent Dief packing for the west by his own party.
A rather shy career diplomat with a Nobel prize only managed 2 minority governments for the Liberals. And accomplished great things in the process.
It may a stretch, but one could possibly draw parallels. Anybody recall who was Pearson's ambassador to the UN?

WesternGrit said...

Great post Jeff.

I'm hoping some more policy comes BEFORE the "Thinkers Conference" (to which I hope I'm invited)... I think Harper will pull his own plug before March by creating some mass scare (unless his polling numbers stay thus)...

Lizt. said...

Was Pearson's Ambassador to the Un,
George Ignatieff?

MississaugaPeter said...

Bravo Jeff!

You have elegantly explained the thoughts and resulting behaviour of the MAJORITY of Canadian Independents, 15%-20% of the electorate, during the last decade.

You continue to write truths without fear of the partisans or ultrapartisans. Most impressive.

Understanding the history of this most important and elusive group of voters is the start. Smart tacticians such as Harper study the history and successfully use it to their advantage (see last two elections). Fortunately, Harper has again with prorogation, like his attacks on the art community during the dying days of the last election, misread many of Canada’s Independent voters and thus, squandered an opportunity to get a majority.

I hope those around Ignatieff do not do the same.

DJN said...

You're spot on, as some other more insightful bloggers have been, in emphasizing that dissatisfaction with the ruling party can only be sustained if there is an actual alternative to the ruling party.

As much as I think the three recent polls you cite show that there is now some powerful evidence that the Tories are taking a real hit, the Angus Reid poll has a very interesting question that produces some very worrying results.

It asks what outcome people think will happen in a 2010 election (as opposed to what outcome they would like to see). Despite 40 percent prefering a Liberal govt (minority or majority) over 37 percent in favour of a Tory govt (min or maj), only 24 percent see a Liberal government forming out of the election while 55 percent see a Tory government.

The way I read this, and I'd love to hear what others think, is that there is still a profound demoralization among Liberals, NDP, Greens about the prospects of an ABC government forming in a 2010 election even though the Liberals are now neck and neck with the Tories even as the NDP maintains its usual 17-18 percent support.

Part of me also wonders if the progressive side of the Green Party has shifted into the Liberal and NDP camp and a number of disaffected Tories have gone to the Greens (which is a phenomenon in Alberta and Ontario - the "Blue Greens").

bgrice said...

Great entry, Jeff. The only comment I have is that I think many of the "breaks" that the voters gave Mr. Harper on issues such as isotopes and listeriosis, etc. Have been based on the promises he had made, not the actions he had taken. I think that a lot of this backlash over prorogation has more to do with the fact that people have finally woken up to the fact that Harper isn’t giving them what he promised, and that his casual disregard for Canadian democratic tradition has no upside other than empty promises.

Wilson said...

Well done, Jeff; good analysis, and good conclusions.

I just wish I had some confidence that the LPC leadership is paying attention.