Foreign Policy: Harper's Soft Underbelly: Insights from the Canadian Election Study

By Everitt, Joanna; Blais, André et al. | Inroads, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Foreign Policy: Harper's Soft Underbelly: Insights from the Canadian Election Study


Everitt, Joanna, Blais, André, Fournier, Patrick, Gidengil, Elisabeth, Nevitte, Neil, Inroads


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 government 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 governments 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 nonConservative 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. …

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