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COMMENTS AND OBSERVATIONS BY FRANK GRAVES – June 10, 2010

[Ottawa – June 10, 2010] – The new poll, and the recent trajectory behind it, suggest a quite different political landscape than even 3 weeks ago. Although the changes have been slight, the strategic implications of the differences are profound. The Conservatives have slipped from being clearly in the driver’s seat to riding shotgun with scant distance between them and their pursuers. Moreover, the recent trajectory has cast them in the new role of a floundering party.

Perhaps the most troubling feature of this poll for the Conservatives are the directional numbers. Confidence in national direction has been steadily slipping over the last several weeks. But much more disturbingly for Harper’s Conservatives, voter confidence in the direction of the federal government has eroded to the point where it has tied a recorded low for the government. People may point to leadership indicators (like best Prime Minister), but it is directional measures of confidence in the government which are the real leading indicators (if approval was so important, Jack Layton would be Prime Minister and Kim Campbell would have had one of the best – not the absolute worst – performance in federal election history). The cognoscenti watch the directional numbers and these don’t look good at all for the government right now. Less than 4 in 10 Canadians think the government is moving in the right direction. Majority governments typically enjoy the confidence of about 60% on this right track/wrong track measure.

And what does all of this mean for the new issue du jour, Coalitions? Well the implications are really interesting.

This poll comes in the midst of growing chatter about coalitions. In some senses it reinforces that movement by showing just how dramatically the centre and left vote in Canada is fragmented across 4 party options which attract nearly 70 per cent of the electorate. On the other hand, the poll also shows that a Conservative march to victory in the next election is by no means a preordained inevitability and this recognition may take a bit of wind out of the sails of the coalition movements, which had a tinge of desperation fuelling them. Moreover, the political arithmetic may suggest something other than the most talked about Liberal-NDP arrangement. Although it is neither noticed nor acknowledged adequately, the Green Party in Canada now attracts about thirteen percent of eligible voters. With this support they will win seats. They are also within spitting distance of the NDP at 17 points (and well ahead of where the NDP were a decade ago). It is rather odd, therefore, that they aren’t given more prominent consideration in these discussion.

Two alternatives to a Liberal Democrat merger spring immediately to mind. First, a “big tent” progressive party akin the Democrats which unites the NDP, Greens, and Liberals in a modern social democratic party. This union would aggregate about 57% of voters in a model which would be familiar to both American and many continental European voters. It has enough “headroom ” to suffer a significant runoff to the Conservatives and still comfortably cruise to majority. This “traffic light” coalition seems the surest route to power for disaffected center left voters.

Moving in a much less ambitious direction, a reconstituted Green-Liberal arrangement could yield many of the benefits of a Liberal-NDP alliance with a fraction of the maintenance and headaches for those parties. Contrary to popular belief, this arrangement wasn’t the problem in the last federal election or the LPC. It was Mr Dion, not the Green detente, which produced the poor results for the Liberals last time; they may well have done even poorer without this arrangement.

The public’s attitudes to coalitions are poorly formed and capable of considerable flux. I do, however, think there are several misunderstood features of public response to this issue.

Perhaps the most important area of misunderstanding is the issue of whether coalitions are intrinsically undesirable things to be avoided. Honestly, I see very little evidence that the public are fundamentally allergic to coalitions. As the idea of federal coalitions is a pretty new thing, it is not surprising that there would be some confusion and wariness about these new forms of political arrangements. On the other hand, after over six years of minority governments, two prorogation crises, and a high-profile UK election which just produced a coalition government, public political literacy on this topic has risen considerably. It is also the case that public enthusiasm for minority governments has declined significantly over this period. The minority governments which were seen as an antidote to the “arrogant” years of majority rule are now seen as fractious, short sighted, and unstable. We have seen a period of protracted gridlock where no party has been even close to majority levels for over 6 months now, and no apparent breakout is on the horizon. So it is unsurprising that there would be more talk of new political arrangements, particularly amongst those who find themselves on the wrong side of power.

The positions of the various players are fairly predictable. The ruling Conservatives see coalitions correctly as a threat to what appears to be otherwise fairly stable rule. The leader of the opposition finds company with a large number of more patient liberals who see the return to Liberal rule as the ultimate destiny of the natural governing party. Interestingly, many Liberal supporters in the electorate are less upset with the current government than are supporters of other opposition parties, who are basically apoplectic with the current government. So we have about a third of Canadians who love the current government and see any coalition as borderline perfidy. The Liberal supporters are divided into those who might consider coalitions but are at this point uncommitted and the rest of the spectrum who want to know where they can sign up. The reality is that the majority of voters are scattered over an increasingly fragmented center left which shows little tendency to unify under any of the current party offerings. Hence the case for new political arrangements.

In the aftermath of the original post election crisis which saw a coalition government almost emerge, many saw the Conservatives’ dramatic rise in the polls after this episode as a clear public condemnation of coalitions. In fact, our research showed the aversion was not to coalitions per se, but rather to Stephan Dion becoming Prime Minister through the back door after the voters had decisively nixed that idea in the election. After he was out of the equation, public receptivity to a coalition was quite high. In our most recent soundings, it was still high but had dropped somewhat (partly because of cooling ardour for Mr. Ignatieff). No doubt, a Bloc-free alliance would also be more attractive.

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