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The 2008 Canadian Federal Election will be held on October 14, when it is expected that incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party will win. Barry Kay believes that while issues are important to many, it is the personalities and communication skills of the party leader that will determine the outcome of the election. For those that do give priority to issues and policy stances, the protection of public health care is seen as the most important issue to Canadians, and a political non-starter for those like Harper who have called for health care privatization in the past.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome to the next segment of our discussion with Barry Kay about the upcoming Canadian election. Dr. Kay is a professor of political science at Wilfred Laurier University, where he specializes in public opinion and electoral systems. Thanks, Barry. So, Barry, what do Canadians care about in this election? What are the major issues? And where are they in terms of the issues from what we can tell from polling?

BARRY KAY, PROFESSOR, POLITICAL SCIENCE, WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITY: I’ll probably have a more thoughtful response in a few weeks than I do now, after I’ve seen more polling data. Certainly compared to now, 2006 we saw had a big survey that was conducted by various political scientists funded by SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council], and in that we found that far and away the biggest issue was health care. Something like 36 percent of Canadians rank that as the most important issue, the Liberal scandal at the time was 15 percent, and everything behind that was in the single digits, various economic measures.

JAY: Now a lot of our audience is American, and Americans are told that Canadians don’t like their health care system and would prefer a more privatized health care system. What in fact do you find from polling do Canadians want for their health care system? Why is it such an important issue?

KAY: Oh, health care is motherhood in Canada. Indeed, it’s almost beyond political debate in the general electorate. That’s not to suggest some academics may not have a different view.

JAY: But what’s beyond political debate?

KAY: Oh, the notion of having a government-run health care scheme that’s universal and single-tiered.

JAY: ‘Cause we’ve heard John McCain say several times, if you want to know what’s wrong with Barack Obama’s—although Obama does not actually support a government health care scheme, they try to characterize it as one and say, “Just go ask the Canadians how they hate their health care system.”

KAY: Sure, but even the Conservative Party in Canada understands that it can’t seriously tamper with health care. The problem with health care is money, and that means that there are certain choices in terms of how much money is going to go into hip replacements or how much money is going into cancer treatment. There’s that kind of question, that there’s not enough money. But the question of enthusiasm for a single-tier health care availability for Canada, that’s something that all the parties now are in agreement upon. To tamper with that would be the third rail of politics [inaudible]

JAY: Even a right-of-center party can’t touch it.

KAY: That’s right.

JAY: What about the current economic crisis, the Wall Street fallout? To what extent do we know yet how this is going to affect the Canadian election?

KAY: It’s still early. I’m sure it’s going to have an effect, but we have an election on the 14th, and the most immediate question is how much impact it’s going to have in the days immediately leading up to that. I think health care probably has diminished somewhat. The environment was another issue that was increasing in importance during the early part of the campaign. It may be yet.

JAY: In fact, the Liberals kind of were going to stake their campaign on it, and it seems like this talk of recession and Wall Street may have just taken this away from them.

KAY: My own view, frankly, is that the calling of the election on the part of the Conservatives was a fear that there were signs even before the most recent events in the States that indeed the economy was slipping, and they preferred to sort of have an election now rather than a year from now, because as the incumbent government they would be criticized for bad management during an economic crisis. Now, that hasn’t resonated with all Canadians yet. I think that’s going to be a bigger issue in the weeks and particularly the months to come. And there are places in Canada, places, certainly, that have been devastated by the decline in the auto industry, places like Windsor and Oshawa, where I think it’s going to be a huge issue. But I’m not sure that as many Canadians are feeling the pain yet. Some of them are starting to worry about it, but whether there will be enough for it to influence the election on the 14th I’m not so sure.

JAY: Yeah, it’s hard to tell whether it’s really penetrated past the business pages and the kind of people that really avidly read newspapers. But if you talk anecdotally to taxi drivers, you certainly—and other people—people are starting to feel the fear, and it can only increase over the next few days. I don’t think people think that a congressional bailout has really stopped it.

KAY: Perhaps not. But like with Medicare, it’s a motherhood issue: everybody, that is, all the political parties, claim to be on the side of a strong economy. Nobody comes out saying they’re in favor of unemployment. And to be able to convert the fear into a preference or a changing of preference for one party or another, that’s a little more complicated a process.

JAY: Well, the Liberals and the NDP are trying to attack the Conservatives as being associated with a deregulation kind of mindset, a neoliberal kind of mindset, although certainly the Liberals were very much part of that in Canada. But at any rate, they’re trying to say that Harper and the Conservatives are more like the Republicans; “We’re more like the pro-regulation left, and we’re better to deal with the crisis.” You think this can get any traction over the next few days?

KAY: I have a hunch that it’s not going to happen in large numbers by 14 October. In time that may yet be the case, but the various parties have charged Harper as being sympathetic to George Bush on foreign policy and a lot of other issues. And the fact is that Harper has actually gained traction during the campaign in general. So just saying that Harper is like the Americans isn’t normally enough to change the election outcome.

JAY: And to what extent do you think people understand what Harper does stand for? And what about the role of the media in terms of helping people understand the actual substance of the issues versus just Harper’s persona versus Dion’s persona or Layton?

KAY: Oh. Well, yeah, okay, that’s a more general question. You’re right, in my mind, in thinking that indeed people aren’t very sophisticated in their view of Harper. But that’s true generally. It’s not just true of Harper this time; it was true of Chrétien, it was true of Mulroney, it was true of lots of politicians that there isn’t a great deal of sophistication and that there’s a kind of comfort level. If in fact people find the candidate comfortable and tended to imbue some trust in them, they’ll tend to go along with them on issues they don’t fully understand. So we see some people who thought that Mulroney was a great environmentalist because they felt comfortable with Mulroney at the time. There are Americans who thought that Reagan was a great environmentalist when he clearly wasn’t. The level of sophistication on the part of any voters isn’t that great, and the issues tend to be for policy wonks. They can be important in campaigns, but it takes an effective communicator to be able to connect the dots. And that’s where Dion has been singularly ineffective this campaign. I think he’s got policies, he’s got issues that I think are important, but he has not been very effective in being able to sell them in terms of what he wants, and that’s hurt the Liberal Party, and, frankly, that’s the main reason that Harper is on the verge of a majority, not because of what Harper’s done so well.

JAY: In quote-unquote “normal times,” people kind of tune in, they tune out of elections. It doesn’t feel that it’s part of their personal life; it’s almost an event you can watch, you get to participate in a little bit, but it’s not something that will really affect me. They’re kind of all the same is the feeling of it all. I think a lot of people feel this way. But during a recession or a real war that feels like everyone gets engaged. They’ve been able to isolate the Afghan War so it doesn’t feel part of Canadian life. But if people really do get this smell that the economy could be going into deep, deep recession, depression, into double-digit unemployment, as people start to smell that, is there any pattern we know from previous elections or from what you can tell from polling if this might affect things?

KAY: Oh, sure it could. But, again—.

JAY: And in which direction do you think it would?

KAY: Well, I think if people are genuinely unhappy, profoundly unhappy with the status quo that affects the incumbent government. And indeed that’s why we’ve seen in the last few days that Obama rising precipitously in the States compared to McCain. It’s because of the fact that Americans are very much realizing that. And although McCain hasn’t been formally part of the administration, he’s of the same party, and that’s hurt him. And I think right now that’s why Obama’s probably going to win the campaign in the States. But in Canada, there is not yet immediacy, that salience that causes Canadians to think, “Hey, things are terrible. We’ve got to throw the ins out.” When there is a sense of panic, whoever are the ins, whether they’re responsible for the problem or not, it’s going to hurt them. But right now—and there may be people in some areas that are concerned about this. I don’t think it has the salience, and my hunch is there isn’t enough time between now and October 14 for it to have a huge impact on the election.

JAY: Can you tell from polling now or from the previous elections to what extent the more sophisticated voters here—and I don’t mean people that are right in the chattering classes and fully involved—but are just frankly cynical about the whole process, they really don’t think there’s that much difference between the parties, and that’s why they don’t get more engaged?

KAY: That’s part of the reason—.

JAY: And also the amount of partisanship.

KAY: Well, yeah, but parties still engage in partisanship. That seems to appeal to their base. But one phenomenon that has changed in this election that I think illustrates that point has been the rise of the Green Party. The Green Party had under 5 percent in the last election. Polls now show them at 10, and some polls show them having more support than the Bloc Québécois. My hunch is they’re not going to win many, if any, seats as a result of that. But a lot of the people who vote for the Green Party don’t vote because of environmental reasons; they vote because of the fact that there is a plague on everybody’s head, that they’re unhappy with everyone. It’s basically they’re choosing none of the above. And I think that’s an illustration of the skepticism that people have about the political system.

JAY: Well, we’ll see how the skepticism expresses itself on October 14. Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us. And join us again for our further coverage of the Canadian elections.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Dr. Barry Kay is a Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His research focuses on the topics of elections and public opinion. He is a past member of the Canadian National Election Study team, and recent publications pertain to electoral systems, public opinion polling, and the impact of single-issue interest groups. He has developed a model for projecting parliamentary seat distributions from popular vote or opinion polls, which is updated regularly and can be found at He is also a political analyst with Global Television, for their national election coverage.