Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Is Canada Becoming More Conservative?

Lots of Canadians think Canada is an increasingly conservative country. Look at the last three federal elections. Look at the polls. Isn't it obvious that political values are shifting?

"As the country has evolved, I wouldn't say that it has become radically conservative or anything like that, but I think its values have shifted a little bit more over time towards the right," pollster Bruce Anderson said on the CBC recently. Many people credit or blame Stephen Harper. But whether the Conservative dominance of federal politics is cause or consequence, or both, there's a widespread belief that Canadian values are more conservative than they were and they are becoming more conservative all the time.

But is that actually true? I asked Scott Matthews, a political scientist at Queen's University and director of the Canadian Opinion Research Archive. Like a good academic, he began by noting that there isn't as much data on the subject as he would like and so he couldn't be certain. "But having said that," he said, "my strong suspicion is these claims are nonsense."

Since 1994, the Environics Institute has been tracking what Canadians say are their spending priorities for the federal government. The most recent data are from 2010. Over that entire time, across 21 categories, Canadians' views have changed very little. And the few items that do show significant change hardly support the Canada-is-more-conservative thesis: Support for "programs for poorer regions" went from 46 per cent to 60 per cent, while support for "arts and culture" climbed from 15 to 30 per cent.

Are taxes mostly good or bad? There was no significant change in Canadians' views between 2005 and 2010. Should government reduce the gap between rich and poor? Canadians' views in 1990 were essentially the same as in 2010.

Since 1997, Environics has also asked Canadians about the importance of certain symbols. Again, there's little change up to 2010. And to the extent that there is change it is not in a conservative direction. In 1997, 37 per cent said bilingualism is a "very important" Canadian symbol; in 2010, that had risen to 46 per cent. Support for multiculturalism as a Canadian symbol went from 49 to 56 per cent. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms went from 72 to 78 per cent. Even the CBC went from 39 to 42 per cent.

The most popular symbol by far was health care. It went from 89 per cent support to 85 per cent. (The RCMP went from 60 to 57 per cent. Hockey from 30 to 47 per cent. The Queen, alas, struggled from 14 per cent to 16 per cent.)

This stability isn't surprising to political scientists. It largely reflects people's views on political fundamentals like egalitarianism, the role of government, the role of the family, moral traditionalism, and so on. These are political values. They resist change.

"Political values are generally quite stable," Matthews notes. They "tend to form by early adulthood and tend to be basically fixed over the life cycle."

And yet, people's views about specific issues can and do change, sometimes with blinding speed. So does their support for political parties. How is that volatility possible when political values are stable?

The answer is simple: Political outcomes are determined by countless factors, political values being only one.

"Outcomes are about a lot more than public opinion and public opinion is about a lot more than political values," Matthews says.

In a recent study, Matthews looked at Canadians' views on the legal recognition of same-sex relationships, which changed suddenly and dramatically. "In the Canadian Election Study data, we see majority opposition turn to majority support between the 1997 and 2000 elections."

Canadians' political values didn't change in those three short years. They were as morally traditional as before. They were as egalitarian as before. So why was there a complete reversal on an issue that engages fundamental values? "What changed was that the Supreme Court, in a couple of very prominent decisions, started to articulate an equal-rights framing of the legal recognition of same-sex relationships."

The Supreme Court decisions changed the discussion. Previously, Canadians tended to think of same-sex relationships in moral terms. That engaged the underlying value of traditionalism. Result: opposition. But the new discussion invoked equal treatment before the law, which engaged the underlying value of egalitarianism. Result: support.

Since 2004, we have indeed experienced a tectonic shift in the nation's political dynamic. But it's a mistake to assume, as so many do, that this proves the national political values have changed. We have to consult the evidence. And the evidence, limited as it is, suggests Canadian political values haven't budged.


Unfortunately, I have to interrupt myself here and mention the "Manning Centre Barometer." It's a popular opinion survey conducted by the Manning Centre, Preston Manning's conservative think-tank. And it contradicts this column.

Canadian political values are moving to the right, the Manning Centre claims to have proven. "The ideological 'centre' has shifted to a new conservative orthodoxy."

Evidence? Well, do you believe that we should learn from what has worked in the past?

That there is a right and wrong? That we should promote entrepreneurship? Then you are conservative, according to the Manning Centre. Of course the overwhelming majority of Canadians said they agreed with these anodyne sentiments. Party affiliation made little difference. Conservatives agreed. Liberals agreed. New Democrats agreed.

For the record, I agree. In fact, I don't think I know anyone who wouldn't agree.

Are you suspicious yet? Good. But that's not the worst of it.

Remember that the critical element is the trend. The Manning Centre didn't merely say Canadians are conservative. It said we are more conservative than in the past.

There is no evidence to support that claim - none - for the simple reason that these questions weren't asked in the past. There's nothing to compare them to. And the Manning Centre didn't even pretend to. It just claims that a single dot on the graph is a trend line.

This is junk social science that proves nothing - except perhaps the gullibility of the media which gave it an enormous amount of uncritical coverage.