Stephen Harper says Canadians have become more conservative in the past 20 years but he provides very little evidence of this.

In fact, even facing the weakest and most ineffective Liberal party in a generation, he cannot persuade more than 40 per cent of Canadians to say they will vote Conservative. In fact, all kinds of polls and in-depth studies of Canadian values suggest just the opposite: They are more progressive in their attitudes regarding the role of government.

The problem is, they have been convinced that their values will not or cannot find their way into public policy. It’s not Canadians’ values that have changed — it is their expectations.

Yearly polling by Ekos suggests that while the Canadian political and economic elite have become more conservative — that is, believing in a very limited role for government — everyone else sticks tenaciously to the view that government can be and should be a force for good.

The polling project, called “Rethinking Government,” concluded: “A chasm exists between those charged with governing (the decision-makers) and those being governed.” Given 22 value choices for the role of government, the two groups’ attitudes were diametrically opposed to each other.

“Competitiveness” and “minimal government” ranked 1st and 3rd for the elites, and 20th and 22nd for the general public. “Virtually all of the government roles related to equality, social justice, collective rights, full employment and regulation of business were low on the elite’s preference list and high on the general public’s.”

In another values exploration, Ekos asked Canadians what goal they would pursue for Canada if they were prime minister. They responded as follows:

âe¢ Best quality of life in the world: 66 per cent.
âe¢ Best health-care system in the world: 64 per cent.
âe¢ Lowest incidence of child poverty in the world: 62 per cent.
âe¢ Best-educated population in the world: 57 per cent.

But when it came to the elite’s priority goals, Canadians were much less enthusiastic: only 50 per cent said lowest debt, just 45 per cent wanted the lowest taxes and a mere 30 per cent wanted the “highest standard of living of industrialized nations.”

This latter figure requires some explaining, especially as it compares to quality of life — which came in at the top: 66 per cent. According to Ekos’s Frank Graves “This objective brings into play: an emphasis on human capital (e.g., health, education, skills, kids).” Graves said the survey showed an “increased receptivity to the need for government to play a role in addressing problems in our collective life. We are also seeing a fairly strong rejection of trickle-down economics.”

In 2002, highly respected researcher Judith Maxwell led the Canadian Policy Research Network in an exploration of Canadian values. The initiative went beyond focus groups and polling; it conducted day-long dialogues across the country on major issues around the discussion theme “The Kind of Canada We Want.”

The research team compared the results to an identical 1995 dialogue. In 1995, investment in children was a core value, but by 2002 the investment theme “had strengthened and broadened to include the right of every child, youth, and adult to receive support to become a fully contributing citizen.”

Whereas in 1995 citizens emphasized “self-reliance and compassion leading to collective responsibility,” the 2002 dialogues revealed a desire for “mutual responsibility for all actors in society.” In 1995 there was much talk of waste and abuse, but in 2002 the focus was on a critique of “weak social program design, especially the program barriers to participation … [and] a broader shift in perspective from recipient and critic, to more engaged citizen.”

In 2002 citizens were acutely aware that their values were not being reflected back to them in the Canadian media. When asked about “why the media reflects such different perspectives from their own, [participants] questioned the extent to which citizens’ views are truly reflected in the media … [suggesting] that the media is manipulative and provides misinformation.”

And that brings us back to the issue of expectations. Beginning with the national debate on the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and continuing to the present day, political conservatives and their allies in the media, think-tanks (Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe) and universities and business lobbies have waged an extremely effective campaign along the lines of “There is no alternative.”

This framing of the issue was used so often in the 1980s and early 1990s it became a universal acronym: TINA. From the late ’80s up until 1995 the focus was the deficit and it was relentless: Literally thousands of articles, TV programs, editorials, studies and political campaigns warned about hitting the “debt wall.”

It was so successful that when Paul Martin slashed federal social spending by 40 per cent, the general public simply acquiesced. It didn’t matter that no such “wall” existed or that Canada’s debt was among the highest rated in the world. Add to these campaigns the Reform party’s message that government had its hand in “taxpayers’ pockets,” and that government jobs “weren’t real jobs” and you had the conditions for a huge reduction in the social role of government.

Conservatives learned the power of framing the issues: You don’t have to change people’s values if you can convince them their values are impractical.


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...