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MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING OR A BUTTERFLY EFFECT?

BY FRANK GRAVES

[OTTAWA – September 28, 2008] In chaos theory we see how very small initial events can produce huge changes to the dynamics of complex systems. While the mathematics for exploring butterfly effects in political systems is generations away we get the feeling that there might be much bigger things afoot than might be immediately apparent from a casual review of the first half of Campaign 2006. Whether this is much ado about nothing or in fact the signal of profound trajectory shifts in the Canadian political system is an interesting question.

The initial answer to this question would favour the first answer. Despite the furious machinations of the parties and their legion of spinners and apologists things look very similar to the conclusion of the 2006 election. The Conservatives seem to be permanently cemented to the magic 36.3 level of voters who selected them in 2006 (plus or minus 3 percent as the pollsters say). Every time they peek above the majority threshold the electorate seems to recoil slightly and restore them to their new natural equilibrium point of 36 or so points. Auspiciously, (at least for the Conservatives) we may be seeing new rules for majority formation. A more fragmented and ideologically polarised political arena means that even their current levels steer them very close to a majority. This leads to the second observation about the campaign. The largest change in the campaign to date is the Liberals falling back from to the 30 points achieved in the last election to roughly 25 points. Hardly a precipitous plummet in arithmetical terms but given the overall political dynamics in Canada today this modest shift has opened the door form much larger future changes. Similarly the NDP have not exactly rocketed to new heights under Layton’s stewardship (they are up 2 or possibly 3 points from 2006 and still well behind their heights achieved during their salad days under Broadbent in the eighties. Even the initial discussion of a fading and irrelevant Bloc seems to have been replaced by a steady recovery in Québec which now sees the Bloc at basically the same levels as they achieved in 2006. The Greens have grown significantly but have plateaued and may well remain seatless in 2008. So how does such an apparently placid political landscape possibly signal a profound shift?

The answer lies in the Liberal decline. A decline that becomes even more troubling for Liberals when coupled with their dismal performance in attracting first time voters. This may be an interesting illustration of a butterfly effect as we probably would have had a Rae-led Liberal party if only a single Dion supporter had favoured Kennedy instead. This is important as by far the overwhelming conclusion of the campaign to date is that the Liberals have faded largely as a result of an underwhelming reception of their new leader. This has opened the door for previously implausible scenarios such as an NDP or Bloc leader of the opposition. It also makes the possibility of a CPC majority with as little as 36 points if the Liberals and NDP were to saw off and the GP actually converts a sizable fraction of current supporters on Election Day.

The CPC have clearly become the only party which constitutes anything resembling a national consensus and they appear to be heading steadily to victory, while wobbling in and out of majority territory as a more poll-literate and strategic electorate weighs the prospect of giving them clear authority to steer the country for the next 4 years .Notwithstanding this fact there are some very daunting and new divisions evident in Canada. Most crucial is a growing generation divide with the post boomer cohorts showing muted enthusiasm for the Conservatives or federal politics at all. This may explain declining levels of attachment to country that we are observing. In the absence of an Obama-like magnet for younger voter disengagement it is difficult to predict how this growing rift will play out in the future. We are also seeing a large divide across the more educated and diverse residents of Canada’s largest megapolis and the main street “middle Canada” more comfortable with the Conservatives. The familiar East-West divide remains with the Conservative’s stranglehold over Alberta extending to a firmer embrace of B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Finally, the optimistic (for federalists) scenario of the death of sovereigntist sentiments in Quebec appears premature as the BQ once again rise to the clear lead. This is coupled with the lowest ever levels of Quebecker attachment to Canada that we have witnessed and a still resilient 50 percent of Quebeckers who would vote yes to the 1995 referendum question.

These pose a series of challenging question regarding the very glue which maintains the country. So is it just the gentle changes we see on the surface or is this the beginnings of a butterfly effect which will profoundly transform the country? Stay tuned.

Printed in the Globe & Mail, “Pollsters’ Corner” (September 28, 2008 – Online edition)

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