If there is one simple reason for the Liberal Party of Canada to ignore the advice of Ekos pollster Frank Graves, it is this, his advice is wrong.
Much has been made in Ottawa lately about comments Graves made to Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin on advice he supposed gave to the Liberal Party. The subsequent spat in Ottawa, coupled with revelations that Graves has given $11,000 to the Liberals but only $500 to a single Conservative candidate, while claiming to be the CBC’s neutral pollster of record, has left Graves with a red face. Or at least it should. Even after an apology and explanation, Graves went on to defend himself by noting that Conservatives were more likely to be homophobic and racist than other voters.
To be fair to my CBC competition here, I don’t doubt that they acted in good faith, they take the news seriously and I am sure they did not set out to skew something as simple as weekly polling results on the political horserace question. That said, I expect CBC will want to avoid the appearance of a conflict and they will change pollsters even before the Heritage Committee gets around to Tory MP Dean Del Mastro’s request for a hearing into the Graves-CBC relationship.
But all of this is clouding the question of Graves’ advice and whether it makes sense.
Conservative pundits such as Ezra Levant and Kory Teneycke have taken up the language of their left-wing opponents and said that Graves’ call for a culture war is divisive, as if the rest of politics is not. In public that’s the type of thing a politician might respond to, if a microphone was in their face. In private the question is, will it work?
Here is what Graves is quoted as telling the Liberals in his column last Wednesday, “I told them that they should invoke a culture war. Cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, secularism versus moralism, Obama versus Palin, tolerance versus racism and homophobia, democracy versus autocracy. If the cranky old men in Alberta don’t like it, too bad. Go south and vote for Palin.”
Now to the party faithful living in Toronto’s Annex or Montreal’s Westmount neigbourhoods, all of this likely sounds like just the ticket. Then again, those people are already on your side and casting their ballots for you. Will it work for the rest of the population? Will it bring enough voters over to your side to make your team the one that wins the election?
The answer here is a clear no.
While Lawrence Martin appears happy to declare that Ignateiff is finally tacking left, the populace remains in the mushy middle, a spot the Conservatives have moved to without losing their right-wing base, at least not yet. If the Ignatieff Liberals move too far to the left they will, barring any major mistakes from the Conservatives, cede the middle ground to Harper and Co. and fight for the left-wing vote with the Bloc, NDP and Greens.
Consider the results of the last few elections. When Jean Chretien won the 2000 election he took 172 seats, 100 of them in Ontario. By the time of the 2008 election the Liberals had 77 seats, just 38 of them in Ontario. Now it could be argued that Chretien campaigned exactly as Graves suggested during the 2000 and he cleaned Stockwell Day’s clock. True, but Stephen Harper is not Stockwell Day, the year 2000 is a long time ago and the Conservatives have been running a fairly moderate right-of-centre government for the last four years. Trying to scare the public that the world will end if you elect the people that have governed the country for nearly half a decade is unlikely to work.
When you consider that Ontario is the battleground for any pending election, a Liberal political strategist needs to ask, where have I lost seats and how do I get them back? As I mentioned, in 2000 the Liberals won 100 of Ontario’s then 103 seats, the NDP took one and the Canadian Alliance took two seats. Fast forward to 2008 and the NDP has 17 Ontario seats, the Liberals 38 and the Conservatives 51. In races where the Liberals won, the second place finisher was more likely to be a Conservative than NDP candidate and in Conservative held ridings the second place finisher was more likely to the Liberal candidate.
Clearly the place for Liberals to gain seats is not so much in NDP territory but in Tory territory, the question then is how to do this without becoming a clone of the Harper Conservatives? Ignatieff’s instincts that some of the votes need to come from rural areas of the country is correct and he has announced policies to recruit doctors as well as some of his agriculture policy surrounding the promotion of local food and farmers markets. These are policies that could attract votes as much as his support for the gun registry will cost him some votes.
Politicians need to tell people where they stand on an issue and then invite people to follow them. In his current staff Michael Ignatieff has some wise people to counsel him on where he should try and lead the nation, he should seek their counsel rather than the wisdom of Frank Graves. The advice that Graves has freely given will only take the Liberals one place, off the edge of a cliff.
Get more from Examiner.com's Canadian Politics Examiner