Susan Delacourt, Toronto Star
Parliament Hill, May 24 2013
There are two ways to become a former Conservative in Canada these days.
You can get tossed out, like senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau.
Or you can leave the party of your own volition, as voters in Labrador did earlier this month when they elected Liberal MP Yvonne Jones, handing Conservative Peter Penashue a resounding defeat in the federal byelection.
So is it time to revisit this idea — put forward not so long ago — that Conservatives stand to be the natural governing party of the 21st century?
Earlier this year, journalist John Ibbitson and pollster Darrell Bricker released a book called the Big Shift, in which they argued that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative party was best positioned to reap the gains of Canada’s changing demographics.
Conservatives, they said, had done a better job of shaping their party’s platform to meet the demands of new Canadians and all those people living in the rapidly expanding West.
This week, amid all kinds of other bad news for Conservatives, the Broadbent Institute released a reply to that Big Shift assertion.
“We decided that notion deserved some testing,” Rick Smith, director of the institute, said at a Wednesday lunch gathering at the Chateau Laurier.
Smith released the results of a comprehensive Environics poll showing that Canadians were actually more “progressive” than conservative and, more significantly, that newcomers to Canada were no more conservative than people who had lived in this country longer than 10 years.
On an array of large questions, such as whether people trusted government more than corporations and their willingness to pay more for social programs and government-run health care, Environics found no significant differences in opinion between new Canadians and “old” Canadians.
About 72 per cent of people born outside Canada believe their taxes should support a strong pension system, compared to 76 per cent of people born here, the poll found. About 69 per cent of new Canadians believe the best way to fight crime is by treating its “root causes” of poverty, racism and addiction, compared to 63 per cent of Canadian-born people.
“On issues ranging from taxation and trust in public institutions, to social values and views regarding Canada’s role on the world stage, progressive ideals are supported by strong majorities in the largest urban/suburban areas across the country, which are increasingly the hardest fought battlegrounds for federal elections,” the institute declared in the summary of the Environics results.
Smith was speaking to a room filled with New Democrats and a smattering of Liberals. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was at the head table, sitting with Neera Tanden, head of the U.S. Center for American Progress.
Tanden had just finished a speech that was also intended to buoy the spirits of non-Conservatives in Canada, explaining how progressives had captured American hearts and minds from the clutches of Republicans over the past decade.
Thanks to President Barack Obama and a determined, sustained outreach to minority communities in the U.S., she said, Democrats had built an enduring, progressive coalition.
“We’ve come a long way... the country’s come a long way,” she said.
Barely a week since the election in British Columbia, however, it may not be the right time to talk to New Democrats about polls. Many of them believed the polls predicting that B.C. would be swearing in a New Democrat premier, Adrian Dix, around about now.
Smith acknowledged that progressives in Canada face “challenges,” alluding to the B.C. election surprise. But he said the Environics poll still showed that Canadians were more open to progressive ideas than they were to conservative ones.
If nothing else, the Broadbent Institute poll and the Big Shift are evidence of where political minds are focused these days.
When the next election rolls around in 2015, Canada will have 30 new ridings, half of them in Ontario, filled with suburbanites and new Canadians. Every political party is scrambling, even now, to secure a foothold in those places.
This is why new Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau keeps talking about the middle class — 24 mentions of that phrase this year alone in the House of Commons.
It’s why Immigration Minister Jason Kenney keeps logging all those miles on the road and is not seen as likely to be among those who will change jobs in Harper’s big cabinet shuffle this summer.
Though it may be getting more dangerous to make predictions in Canadian politics these days, one forecast is safe: in the next two years, everyone will be vying for the votes of the newcomers — the new Canadians, young, first-time voters and the people in those 30 new ridings.
So while our attention is focused on who’s leaving various political parties, voluntarily or not-so-voluntarily, future fates will be shaped by the newcomers on the Canadian political landscape.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.