by Joanna Everitt, André Blais, Patrick Fournier, Elisabeth Gidengil and Neil Nevitte
By the summer, less than half a year after Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party won power as a minority government, their honeymoon with the voters was over. They had dropped the four or five percentage points they had gained in the polls, leaving them no more popular than they had been at the time of the January election.
Part of the explanation for their decline would appear to lie in the area of foreign policy, where the government is increasingly out of step with the Canadian mainstream. If this is so, it could very well affect the Conservative Party’s chances of transforming its minority govearnment into a majority.
Although foreign policy issues were seldom debated in the 2006 federal election, dominated by the sponsorship scandal, government corruption and the Liberal government’s “culture of entitlement,” our election survey data1 show that Canadians are neither uninterested in these matters nor in agreement on them. Indeed, some of the most dramatic policy differences among the supporters of the different parties can be found on issues of defence, foreign affairs and continentalism. There is good reason to expect that differences over Canada’s role in foreign conflicts will have important implications for the outcome of the next election, especially since (as articles elsewhere in this issue of Inroads show) no significant change in the situation in Afghanistan is likely.
Part of the challenge facing the Conservatives lies in the apparently growing number of Canadians who feel that Stephen Harper is aligning Canada too closely with the United States, something recent Liberal prime ministers had been hesitant to do. The extension of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan and – even more – the government’s support of Israel’s position in the war in Lebanon seemed to reflect a shift in Canada’s foreign policy, bringing it more in line with American interests. While the ties between Canada and the United States are extensive, Canadians have generally wanted their politicians to maintain a degree of independence from the Americans in international policy. Data from the 2006 Canadian Election Study reveal that the Harper government more closely reflects the views of Conservative voters than of Canadians as a whole. And policies designed to appeal to the Conservatives’ core constituency are not likely to win back all those who voted Conservative in 2006, let alone draw new voters to the party.
On the basis of a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 indicates a totally negative view of the United States and 100 a totally positive one, Conservative voters report mean scores of 67, while all other voters average 55. Liberal voters are relatively neutral in their feelings, hovering just under the 60-point mark, but those who voted for the NDP or the Bloc Québécois register more negative feelings. Conservative voters are also more likely than other voters to want to see Canada develop closer, if not much closer, ties with the United States. A difference of over 23 percentage points appears between the responses of Conservative and non-Conservative voters as to whether Canada should develop much closer ties with the United States, and a similar 12-point difference appears among those who wanted somewhat closer ties.
There is a distinct regional dimension to attitudes toward the United States. The most positive feeling toward the United States is found among Conservative voters outside Quebec (averaging 68 points), compared to 61 points by Conservative voters in Quebec. When it comes to establishing closer ties with the United States, similar patterns appear. The greatest support is found among Conservative voters in Atlantic Canada and Ontario (see Figure 1). Support is weaker in Quebec, but also in the west, where it is linked in part to negative feelings about free trade. Nevertheless, in every region support is much higher among Conservative voters than among others. What is especially noteworthy is that except for Conservative voters in Atlantic Canada and Ontario, only a minority of voters for all parties in all regions support strengthening Canada’s ties with the United States. Hence moves designed to strengthen these ties are hardly likely to prove vote-getters for the Conservatives.
There is another dimension to the Conservatives’ being out of step with many voters on Canada’s relationship with the United States: the Harper government’s policies on Afghanistan and the Middle East have led to suspicions that it has been taking its directions from George Bush. This is not a new perception, as the Conservative Party of Canada, and before it the Canadian Alliance, have often seemed keen to follow American foreign policy positions. For example, in the spring of 2003 Stephen Harper, as leader of the Canadian Alliance, opposed the Liberal government’s policy of not sending Canadian troops to Iraq, arguing that by not participating in the war Canada was abandoning its American and British allies. In contrast, the Bloc and the NDP, and also the Progressive Conservatives, supported the Liberals. As the Alliance and PCs merged, Harper moved away from this position: at the beginning of the 2006 campaign he stated that while he supported the war in Iraq he would not have actually committed troops to the war effort.
Harper’s overall stance reflects his party’s willingness to engage in military intervention, something that most Canadians are more cautious about. While the 2006 Election Study did not include questions about Canada’s overseas role, the 2004 Election Study did, asking respondents about Canada’s nonparticipation in the Iraq war. Because half of the respondents for the 2006 Election Study had also participated in the 2004 study, these data provide an indication of how Conservative and non-Conservative voters in 2006 viewed this decision.2 When asked whether Canada had made a good or a bad decision in staying out of Iraq, a very solid majority of Canadians (82 per cent) felt that it was good. However, approval was less pronounced among Conservative voters: only 67 per cent thought that it was a good decision while a huge 92 per cent of non-Conservative voters felt that we had been wise to stay out of the war.
Substantial differences between Conservative Party supporters and others could be found in all parts of the country, although the magnitude of the difference varied from region to region. In Ontario and the west, gaps between Conservative voters and those voting for the Liberals or NDP were in the range of 25 to 30 percentage points; in Atlantic Canada and Quebec the differences were smaller. This is because in Atlantic Canada supporters of all parties were slightly less inclined to think that the decision not to participate was a good thing, while in Quebec the opposite was true. Almost all Quebecers (91 per cent) agreed that Canada should not have participated in the Iraq war, with Conservative voters, at 82 per cent, only slightly less opposed to participation than others. The sharp opposition to a more hawkish foreign policy stance among Quebec voters, and in particular among those who voted Conservative in 2006, does not bode well for the Conservative Party’s chances of making inroads into Quebec.
Much attention has been paid to the surprising success of the Conservatives in Quebec in the 2006 election, and most analysts agree that if they wish to transform their minority into a majority they need to improve on the ten seats that they won in the province. This was evident in the significant attention paid to Quebec in the first several months of the government’s mandate. But the party’s stances on foreign policy may hinder these efforts. It was anger with the federal Liberals or disillusionment with the Bloc more than the attraction of the Conservatives’ foreign policy positions that drew Quebec voters. Overall, Conservative voters in Quebec are more sympathetic toward the Conservatives’ positions on these issues than those who voted for other parties, but not much more sympathetic, and notably less supportive than Conservatives elsewhere in the country. International events and the government’s responses to them during their first term in office have served to highlight these differences. Hence, if international events continue to dominate public debates, a Conservative majority government may remain an elusive dream.
This disjuncture between the Conservative government’s policies and the attitudes of Quebec voters can be seen most clearly when it comes to policies surrounding military spending. As part of their election platform, the Conservatives promised to increase spending on the Canadian armed forces by $5.3 billion in their first five years in office,3 and to that end the government announced a $1.1 billion infusion of funds into the military in its first budget. This policy appealed to Conservative voters, a clear majority of whom believe that defence spending should be increased. Again, this view is most strongly held in Atlantic Canada and Ontario, with almost 70 per cent of Conservative voters favouring an increase in defence spending. Slightly fewer western Conservatives, but still a clear majority (61 per cent) feel the same. But not so among those who voted for the Conservatives in Quebec in the last election. Here, only one third of Conservative supporters feel that defence spending should be increased.
Comparing Conservative voters with those supporting other parties on the issue of defence spending, the gap is quite remarkable. An average of 20 points fewer Liberal and NDP supporters want to see defence spending increased. Again, the responses vary by region, but almost everywhere a clear majority of the voters supporting these other parties opt for the same amount or less money being spent on defence. If the Conservatives seek ways to draw support from other parties, increasing defence spending is not likely to assist them.
The Conservatives’ foreign policy positions could thus hurt their chances of winning a majority government. The views of partisan Conservatives, who are happy to see Canada more closely in step with the Americans, stand in stark contrast to the views of other Canadians, whose votes the Conservatives need. Moreover, these policies may actually lose the party some of the support of their previous voters.
These survey results also have electoral implications for the Liberals and the New Democrats. As the Liberals gather at the end of November to select a new party leader, they would be wise to consider how their choice might stand up to public scrutiny when viewed through the lens of foreign policy. Domestic policy differences among the main leadership candidates are minor, but on foreign policy Michael Ignatieff has been positioned as more “hawkish” and sympathetic to the United States than the other contenders. The potential for the Liberal Party to rebuild its electoral base at the Conservatives’ expense will depend greatly on whom they choose as leader. Voters in the 2006 election showed little interest in strengthening ties with the United States, becoming more interventionist or increasing defence spending. Should Ignatieff win the Liberal leadership, then Jack Layton’s strategy of criticizing Canada’s presence in Afghanistan and the growing similarity of Canada’s foreign policy to that of the United States may eventually bear fruit for his party to the detriment of the Liberals: the NDP could find itself closer to the views of the majority of Liberal voters than the Liberal Party itself.