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WHAT WAS THE OPPOSITION THINKING? – March 28, 2011

COMMENTS AND OBSERVATIONS BY FRANK GRAVES

[Ottawa – March 28, 2011] – With the election campaign underway, some people are beginning to ask why any of the opposition parties (with the possible exception of the Bloc) would want to go into an election now, given where they were in the polls.

Maybe we should start with the obvious answer which even the most casual viewing of the question period would underline. These guys really and truly do not like each other. This parliament has been pretty dysfunctional, mired more in acrimonious sniping than nation building. There is very little common ground or mutual respect; and one would be hard pressed to create a list of the momentous achievements – legislative or programmatic – that would cause parliamentarians to take great comfort in their contribution to the public interest. So sometimes you just say “to hell with it, let’s get it on”.

This may be inconsistent with the grand design theories that see arcane three dimensional chess games being played with calculus-like precision, but I think personalities and values matter and there does not appear to be a lot of common ground here.

I don’t think it will matter come Election Day who forced it and whether it was on the budget or ethics. One of the reasons the opposition forced the election is that their constituencies in the electorate were ready to rumble. It was Conservative supporters who stood alone in our recent polling as the only ones who didn’t want an election. This was particularly true of NDP supporters who are radically unhappy with the current government.

So is this some sort of irrational machismo fuelled by simple frustration and boredom with the status quo? I don’t think that is true either. Remembering that it is the opposition that pulled the plug, what were they thinking? Do the Liberals believe their internal polling that the 85% of putatively slumbering voters will awaken and join their already alert brethren in a rush to Ignatieff? Do the NDP really think that the Layton Liberals will flock to their leader when the chips are down? Although neither of these scenarios are “most likely”, I do think there is a rationale for the opposition’s decision. Interestingly enough, one would really have to work hard to find a specific trigger in the rather innocuous Conservative budget to explain this decision. It was more a matter of “Okay, we can do it now and we are sick of waiting – let’s go.”

The NDP are not far off from their position going into the last election (although they are short of their 2008 election performance). But they are doing best on second choice and have the most liked leader so they have plausible aspirations for matching if not eclipsing their last performance. But the real attraction for them lies in the fact that the Conservatives are poised to do worse and that in a diminished Conservative outcome, they could have the balance of power to topple the government and enjoy real representation in a real national government for the first time – ever. This is a potent elixir and it’s really not that implausible at all. This leads to the party with the greatest upside – the Liberal Party. The Liberal upside is more of the Conservative downside, but they are part and parcel of the same interdependent problem. This could be the horseshoe election. The Liberals don’t have to actually score a ringer, they just have to be close enough to invoke the dreaded coalition, which Steven Harper himself has said is the consequent of anything other than a Conservative majority. The Liberal leader appears to have ruled out a formal coalition, but the opposition could still rapidly defeat a new, weakened Conservative government and propose an alternative, informal alliance led by the Liberal Party.

Here is a bold prediction: the Conservative Party is not going to get a majority. Over the past 70 odd weeks of polling that we have conducted, only once did they even come close to majority territory. And guess what? As soon as the majority territory became evident in several concurrent polls, they were brought back to earth in a familiar recoil pattern in the coming weeks. There is some delicate political arithmetic at work here which will determine whether the Conservatives will secure enough seats to withstand the moral (not legal) challenge of coalition ambitions to form government. If they get the 140 seats they were ticketed for in our last poll, they are sitting pretty. The voters wouldn’t stand for the opposition bringing them down with a 40 or 50 seat advantage over the Liberals even if they could technically do so. But many weeks over those past seventy, perhaps most of those weeks, the outcome is much less clear. Let’s say it was 120 of 308 seats for the Conservative Party. It would be hard to imagine them withstanding either an immediate confidence vote or an opposition request to turn government over to the opposition.

So what is the real margin going in? Some polls have been suggesting very large near 20 point advantages for the Conservatives. Frankly, I think the margin is closer. Our polling, with random probability methods and fixed ballot question location of the entire electorate, is showing a 6 to 8 point lead; clear, but not comfortable. So with momentum shifting away from the government’s perhaps too early peak about eight weeks ago, and the possibility that the opposition can stitch together a plausible narrative of arrogance and deception, buttressed with a number of recent ethical pratfalls, I think there was a clear rationale for the opposition to go. It may not be the most likely outcome (a diminished Conservative minority is still the best bet), but the plausible allure of moving to the government side of the house, with the downside of nothing worse than your current status, would be reason enough to pull the plug (extra bonus point for getting a go at the guys you have grown to really dislike at the same time).

7 comments to WHAT WAS THE OPPOSITION THINKING? – March 28, 2011

  • Kathleen Pickard

    I think that one of the problems with polls is that they cannot keep up with the lightening speed communication of the internet. I read a lot of political blogs and frequently comment on news sites and I think we have seen a huge shift over the past 2 days. Harper has stumbled both days; first with the coalition and now with the split income for families in 2014. In my mind political stances are something to know but its all dependent on monmentum. Right now momentum seems to be sliding away from Harper.
    I believe a see a huge change in comments from the previous week and further back. Its really interesting.

  • First, I think the CPC wanted an election in the “I want you to think I don’t want an election but I really do want you to think I want an election” kind of way. The conservatives know that, as you put it, the liberals have the “greatest upside.” So the CPC was BULLYING the Liberals into shrinking from an election call – “go on I dare you, we’ll cream you.” Second, you could put it another way – the liberals have the least to lose in this election. The liberals were right where the CPC wanted them – Iggy could not get out from under the ads and opposition obscurity. An election makes an equal or cleaner fight. More importantly, Iggy is the underdog in this fight: any momentum that goes his way will be amplified 10x – Headline: Iggy comes back from “20” down! – Priceless. Third, this election might be more about the parties than the leaders. Spring cleaning creates a clean house… Thanks for the insight (sorry about the boxing theme) gw

  • bob

    Iggy will no longer be the leader of the Liberals at the end of June 2011 after the Liberal convention in Ottawa.

  • Andrew

    The Conservatives are afraid of three things in 2011, a double dip recession, the Provincial Election in Ontario (the Conservatives may win) and the HST referendum in British Columbia. The fallout from all of those events could negatively impact the Federal numbers if they went to the polls in 2012 so the best way to avoid them is force an early election

  • Ernie

    I’m not sure that Bob has the right leader to fall on his sword. If the Conservatives don’t get their MAJORITY, what happens to Mr. Harper?

  • Martin

    There is a simpler explanation not involving self-interest. An opposition that values the institution of Parliament can not sit idly by when a government is found guilty of contempt of Parliament. This is a line on the slippery slope that can not be crossed. In the same way that Ministers have a duty to resign before that point is reached, the Opposition has a duty to protect the institution by not allowing a state of contempt to be reached with impunity. Whatever their personal or political interest, protecting the institution is paramount.

  • If the people of Canada want an idea of what is store for this country if a liberal/ndp arrangement/coalition or what ever you want to call it forms a government, just take a look a what has happened to Ontario. What has happened to Ontario is a disaster.
    I think the people of Ontario have finally figured out that Lib/ndp socialism is not the answer. Citizens of Toronto cleaned house in their civic election by electing a right leaning mayor in “Ford”. Provincially, Mcguinty is a dead man walking regarding his political future and the Conservatives will win the next provincial election.
    Federally, it’s a choice of what kind of Canada you want to live in.
    Do you want a nanny state/ big brother knows best with government run day for example or one where families have ability to choose to raise their children.
    As for the economy, why at a time when the country is still in fragile recovery, would we want to stick it to business with higher taxes. It makes absolutley no sense.
    This country simply cannot afford the liberals and ndp tax and spend mentality.