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WILL IN-AND-OUT BE A REAL FACTOR? (and a note on why reasoned conjectures are okay) – March 3, 2011

COMMENTS AND OBSERVATIONS BY FRANK GRAVES

[Ottawa – March 3, 2011] – Given the recent public debate, let me begin with what I would have thought would be a pretty obvious caveat. When I comment as a pollster, my preferred role is to interpret direct empirical data. There are, however, numerous situations such as this question about the potential impacts of the in-and-out issue where the pollster is asked to provide insight without direct evidence. Notably, any attempts at prediction will lack direct evidence of the effects. Perhaps this is why Yogi Berra’s caveat about how “prediction is hard, particularly when it is about the future” is so relevant. Nonetheless, there will always be interest in the future and it is possible to offer reasoned conjectures. Reasoned conjectures about the future can be based on partial evidence of the current landscape and experience about how similar events have played out in the past. In this capacity, I don’t have the same authority as I do when I have directly studied or tested impacts, but I do have some qualifications. This is different than idle speculation done in a state of cerebral hygiene (a.k.a. punditry) which I admit I have occasionally resorted to as well.

The in-and-out affair has been percolating in a fairly benign fashion for some time now with little or no discernable impacts on public awareness or voter intentions. It does, however, have the potential to become a much more prominent issue of ethics and accountability. Issues of ethics and accountability have been major ballot booth issues in recent Canadian political history. In fact, it was the mid-campaign announcement into the income trust ethical issue in 2006 which turned what appeared to be a second liberal minority for Paul Martin into a Prime Ministership for Stephen Harper. So, clearly ethical issues can be the crucial determinant of election outcomes. It is also the case that it doesn’t even matter whether the issue is grounded in actual ethical abuse (as was the ultimate conclusion of the investigation of the income trust affair for the Liberal party). In this sense, an open but potentially troubling issue such as the in-and-out affair can be problematic as there is little likelihood of full discovery and judgement before the next election occurs. On the other hand, there are some crucial differences in the current context, not the least of which is the ruling which stimulated current interest was not issued in the midst of a campaign.

There are other significant differences in context today. First, the current government isn’t suffering the level of regime fatigue, or broad, post-Gomery concerns about ethics that plagued the Liberals several years ago. Moreover, our tracking suggests that ethical issues have significantly receded in salience from the mid part of the last decade when they had peaked. The current government has also managed to avoid the ethical issues which troubled the electorate in the case of the long term Liberal and Progressive Conservative regimes which preceded their term in office. All of these forces work in favour of the government.

Still, coming on the heels of the still active Oda affair, and as we are on the cusp of a possible spring election, the in-and-out issue does pose some significant challenges for the government. In and of itself, it may not have enough traction to cause serious damage but it might be very damaging if it can put it into a broader narrative which suggests that the government has been oblivious to bending and even breaking the rules for political advantage. Although the current government has done a good job of avoiding ethical pratfalls during its five years in office, there is a growing inventory of issues such as the in-and-out affair which might be stitched together to show that government places its hold on power above the principles of transparency and ethical conduct. It isn’t at all clear nor even likely that opposition parties will be capable of delivering such a narrative; but it is clear that if you are a government who took office on a mandate of superior ethics and accountability, the last thing you want as you go into an increasingly likely spring election is a fast moving ethical issue catching fire.

3 comments to WILL IN-AND-OUT BE A REAL FACTOR? (and a note on why reasoned conjectures are okay) – March 3, 2011

  • Christopher

    It’s discouraging when I can no longer believe anything said by a Minister.

    They have lied and obfuscated the truth so often that my level of cynicism in this government has reached an all-time high.

  • Peter Thomson

    I sent a Friends of the CBC letter to the government about CBC funding reductions. The reply I received did not address my concerns but rather it claimed the NDP had voted against funding the CBC when it opposed the Conservative budget! That reply showed neither truth nor accountability.

  • William Wilson

    For the most part, the Conservatives have succeeded by linking themselves to the economy. They dominate the “economic” narrative, but it would be interesting to see how they react and fare under a competing narrative of ethical “misshapes” on their part. Although they were successful in the past under such a narrative, its criticisms were aimed at the Martin government. Now the criticisms will be aimed at them. I doubt they have even anticipated the possibility of a compelling counter-narrative – to date, the opposition parties have been largely ineffective – which might be cause for concern among Conservative. If the Liberals are successful in their attempt to defeat the Harper Government™ on ethical questions before the next budget, then the economic narrative will get lost.

    The Conservative have been very successful in undermining Mr. Ignatieff’s persona, but they have done a rather lackluster job of strengthening Mr. Harper’s persona. Aside from his preference for lame sweaters, love of hockey and ability to play the piano, many Canadians still dislike him. If the Conservatives have been unable to repackage Mr. Harper as a generally likeable person in the past despite their best efforts, is it reasonable to think they could accomplish the same task during a six-week campaign that sees his moral character under constant attack?