By Geoffrey Stevens
Is fear of a majority Harper government enough to bring Canadians back to the polls?
After listening to the English and French debates this week, a Harper majority seems to me to be one issue with the potential to energize the electorate. Not the entire electorate, necessarily, but maybe enough of it to stop the steady slide in voting-day participation.
Fifty years ago, between 75 and 79 per cent of Canadians routinely made the small effort required to cast a vote in a federal election. The turnout has been eroding, bit by bit, in virtually every election since the early 1960s. It reached an all-time low of 58.8 in the 2008 election, down 20 points from, say, the 1963 election (79.2 per cent).
One million fewer Canadians voted in 2008 than in the 2006 election – even though the number of registered voters actually increased by 600,000 in that period (to 23,677,639). The Liberals were hardest hit, as their total national vote declined by 835,000; Elections Canada reckons that while some Liberal voters moved to the Green party, between 600,000 and 700,000 former Liberal supporters simply stayed home.
With the exception of the Greens (up 274,000 votes in 2008), all parties suffered. The Conservatives were down 165,000, the NDP 74,000 and the Bloc Quebecois 173,000. So all parties have something to worry about. The Greens worry that their popular support does not translate into seats, of which they have none. The other parties have a common problem: they need to retrieve and re-engage their lost supporters.
The Liberals face the largest numerical challenge, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has the most at risk. He rolled the dice, gambling that his pitch for a majority would solidify his Conservative base, bring back Tories who went missing in 2008, and attract enough new voters to push him over the magic 155-seat threshold to majority status.
Majority government is not an issue that will win votes from the other parties. If they agree on just one thing, it is to stop Harper – a leader whom they dislike intensely – from getting his majority.
But if the turnout is low enough – meaning the opposition parties will have failed to re-engage their traditional supporters and to attract their share of first-time voters – Harper could well make it. He must take comfort from polls in which even fewer respondents say they intend to vote this time than voted in 2008.
I wonder. There are a couple of glimmers of light. One is the enthusiasm displayed by students on many university campuses across the country to get involved. The greater the student turnout, the worse it will be for the Harper Conservatives. But students have a notoriously short enthusiasm span. Will they stay engaged until May 2?
The second glimmer comes from the leaders’ debates. The majority-government issue was prominently flagged in both debates. And a record number of Canadians actually tuned in. Nearly 4 million people (3.85 million) watched the English debate, up 26 per cent from 2008. (As I write this, I don’t have numbers for Wednesday night’s French debate, but anecdotal evidence suggests that audience was also extremely large.)
We will have the opportunity in this part of Ontario to see how majority government plays as an issue – and to see if student enthusiasm and debate viewership can be converted into turnout at the polls.
It won’t take much to make a big difference in three ridings that every political savant in the country is watching. Kitchener-Waterloo went Conservative by a mere 17 votes in 2008 – with a voter turnout of only 62.3 per cent. In Kitchener Centre (Conservative by 339 votes), only 57 per cent bothered to vote. And Guelph, once a Liberal stronghold, stayed that way by fewer than 1,800 votes with a turnout of 64 per cent.
Voter participation will be a crucial factor in all three ridings on May 2. It shapes up to be an exciting evening.
(published April 15, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at email@example.com