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Poll-driven news coverage does a disservice to Canadian politics

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A bit more than a week before the House of Commons meets again some normally canny and shrewd observers are starting to write off Stephen Harper.

But those who see the current Conservative regime as the worst disaster to hit Ottawa since R. B. Bennett should not pop their champagne corks just yet.

The current federal governing party still has plenty of assets. It would be foolhardy to dismiss its prospects six months to a year before an election.

Pollster Nik Nanos says the Conservatives are now trailing both the Liberals and the NDP in what he calls his "Power Index."

That is not a poll of voting intentions.

Rather, it shows the available, potential vote for the various parties. In other words, the question is not: "Who would you vote for today?" It is: "Who would you consider voting for now or in the future?"

Put enough hypothetical elements into a question and you can get all kinds of responses. What do those responses portend? It is not very clear. But when the pollster gives it a nifty -- if not very descriptive or meaningful -- title such as "Power Index," he earns himself valuable and free media exposure. And that is what the game is all about.

At 30% Harper may not be so far from his target

As for the more conventional measure of public opinion: when poll aggregator Éric Grenier puts together the federal political horserace figures from a variety of polling outfits he comes up with the Liberals leading the Conservatives by nine points, with the NDP well back in third place.

That may look bad for Harper (and Mulcair). If it is accurate, however, the Conservatives' enduring level of support at 30 per cent is actually not bad for a party that has never aspired to be a big tent.

As we said in this space a few days ago, the Conservatives' hope is that they can build on their seeming solid and loyal 30 per cent base by bringing in what they will characterize as "middle-class" friendly measures in their 2015 budget. Most prominent of those will be a series of highly touted and promoted tax cuts.

Of course, polling numbers are not the only leading indicators.

Way back in April, Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert was reciting a litany of defeats and rebuffs for Prime Minister Harper and his Conservatives that seemed to confirm their dreary polling results.

Those set-backs included the Prime Minister losing many of his closest advisers (Nigel Wright and Dimitri Soudas, for instance) and getting himself slapped down on more than one occasion by the Supreme Court, even though Harper appointed the majority of the Court's current members.

It did not look too good then, and does not look any better now.

What do polling results so far from an election mean?

But Ottawa insiders might want to be careful about assuming most voters pay very close attention to that sort of inside-the-Queensway stuff. The Ontario Liberals have been wracked by some pretty serious and costly scandals. And yet this past spring enough voters believed they were the least objectionable available choice and returned Premier Wynne and her party to power, with a majority no less.

The fact is that this far from an actual election it is foolhardy to read too much into Justin Trudeau's celebrity-style popularity, what appears to be profound antipathy toward Harper, or the seeming public indifference to Tom Mulcair (despite his solid performance as Opposition Leader).

Anyone who has been paying even scant attention to Canadian politics over the past few years knows there are a number of recent examples of opinion polls in the run-up to elections that were very poor predictors of the ultimate results.

The pollsters often caution us that they are only presenting an evanescent snapshot in time. We are not soothsayers, they warn, just fairly rough-and-ready pulse-takers.

Too bad we in the media are not more mindful of that warning.

It would be refreshing if political journalism were not to such a great extent a tortured exegesis of the oracular musings of over-paid pollsters; but rather a serious effort to describe and analyze what governments, parties and politicians actually do and propose to do.

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