Perspectives on the 2019 Federal Elections

In advance of the special MISC panel on the Canadian Federal Elections, two of the invited experts discuss how everything from gender issues to regional divides could impact the vote
Marc-André Bodet and Melanee Thomas will be participating in MISC’s Perspectives on the 2019 Federal Elections panel on October 15

On Oct. 15, the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada will present a panel of experts to discuss the Canadian Federal Elections prior to the vote on October 21. The speakers will discuss the parties’ respective campaigns, as well their predictions for the election. In advance of the event, two of the panelists – Melanee Thomas, Eakin Visiting Fellow in Canadian Studies; and Marc-André Bodet, associate professor at Université Laval, specializing in Quebec and Canadian politics; discuss how everything from gender issues to regional divides will impact the vote.

Melanee Thomas researches the causes and consequences of gender-based political inequality, with a particular focus on political attitudes and behaviour. Her current projects include an exploration of the effects of gender, socialization, and psychological orientations to politics (funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant). It is a project examining the role electoral districts play in voter turnout, party competition, and representational diversity (funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant), and an exploration of public and elite opinion about the environment, the economy, and climate change (funded through the University of Calgary Vice President Research).

Marc-André Bodet, associate professor at Université Laval, specializes in Quebec and Canadian politics from a comparative perspective. Bodet studies political parties and elections using a range of quantitative analysis techniques, including surveys and official election data. He is currently collaborating on research on the role of citizens in responsible and responsive democracies.

Women’s issues such as the “me too” movement, pay equity and childcare all play a role in political discussions in Canada. How will these issues play out in the elections and how does the candidate’s gender matter to Canadian voters today?

Melanee Thomas: We have good evidence that shows that voters are as willing to vote for women as their local candidates as they are to vote for men. However, we also know that political parties systematically nominate women in districts where the party is less likely to win. We think that stereotypes about women’s competitiveness or stereotypes about what it means to be a “good” politician, bias women’s chances in nomination contests.

With respect to issues, the challenge is that why these issues will matter to individual voters – sometimes, they matter a lot! – they are unlikely to matter to most voters in the same way. Therefore, those issues have the power to move some voters’ preferences, but I don’t think they have the power to affect the election result. That’s too bad, because research increasingly shows that sexual harassment and misconduct are serious problems, especially for women who work as MPs’ staff.

For the first time we see the People’s Party enter the race. How do you expect the populist anti-immigration and low-tax platform to shape the political debate on this campaign?

MT: This is a new form of populism for Canadian politics. Prairie populism – very distinct from the radical right-wing populism that we see in Europe and, I think, best characterizes the People’s Party – is more common in Canada, and has been since the early 20th Century. Both forms of populism focus on “the people” vs “the elites,” but Prairie populists are much more focused (and divided) on who counts as an elite. In contrast, radical right-wing populists focus on defining who the “pure people” are, and then advocate for policies that help those “pure people,” often at the expense of those who they claim don’t fit that definition. It’s cued in their name.

This creates a rhetoric that many would label as in opposition to most things that define Canada: multiculturalism, tolerance, immigration, the idea that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, and so on. Much of the rhetoric the People’s Party uses is openly racist, if not white supremacist.

The problem with the People’s Party and how the campaign is shaping up is that, in acknowledging the People’s Party as legitimate, it legitimizes the ideas they espouse. There’s a real danger in that – while we have rights to freedom of expression in Canada, that right does not mean that all ideas (or political parties) need to be endorsed as legitimate.

Marc-André Bodet: Populism is a constant of Canadian electoral politics. In that sense, the PP is just the most recent incarnation of latent forms of dissatisfaction toward our institutions. The other parties (except the NDP to a certain extent) have avoided talking about the PP for strategic reasons. There seems to be a belief that it is better to not engage with such a discourse. This is relatively easy since the PP’s support is spread thinly across Canada. The PP is thus a threat to no one.

That being said, though the PP is definitely populist in its discourse and in favour of lower taxation, its position on immigration is more complicated. It is a mix of criticism toward multiculturalism and a desire to discuss how much and whom Canada should welcome. The discourse is often awkward if not inappropriate but that should not delegitimise a necessary debate in the Canadian context. The PP is also, in my view, the only real federalist party (decentralisation, subsidiarity, respect of provincial jurisdictions, etc.) in this election. But again, this part of the message is blurred by the quite radical discourse of its leader.

Right now, the Conservatives are stronger on average in the West and the Liberals are more popular in the East of the country. How are regional divides likely to affect the October 21 elections?   

MT: My students in CANS 405 are watching this closely, as they’re writing an assignment on this exact question! There are several places to look for the effect of regionalism on the election. Regional differences in vote choice are obviously on that list, but I’d also look at regional differences in issue importance and leader evaluations, as those can tell us more about how Canadians living in different parts of the country see federal politics right now.

MAB: The province of Quebec has been the pivot of electoral politics for most of the 20th century. Its support has become more fragmented and its demographic weight has declined, Ontario is now the real battleground. Regionalisation has always been a constant of Canadian electoral politics. What is to some extent new is the desire of party leaders to have a coherent message across the country instead of trying to customize their discourses to different clientele. That creates more tensions but is more honest toward the electorate.

The environment is a key issue for younger voters. How is this issue likely to affect the outcomes of the forthcoming federal elections?  

MT: The environment seems to be a key issue for many voters, not just younger voters. The difference is that those younger voters are starting to outnumber baby boomers, which might be why their concerns are getting more attention.

I think it’s reasonable to expect that voters who care about the environment are going to eschew parties that do not have a credible plan to address climate change. This might create more problems for the Conservatives than it does for the other parties. What’s key is linking this to geography: if enough voters in a district care about climate change and the environment, then this could be an issue that meaningfully affects the election there.

I would caution, though, against interpreting Conservative support as a rejection of environmental concerns. For example, Conservative support in Alberta is high, but public opinion data show that a majority of Albertans are concerned about climate change. Other data show that even though Canadians are concerned about the environment, they’re not (yet) willing to pay much to address climate change. That, to me, is the key problem on this issue: everyone wants a clean environment, but few are thinking seriously about what this means for the economy (and just transition), how we live our daily lives, and so on.

MAB: It is important but it is far from the only thing that matters. Young voters also care about meat and potatoes issues (taxation, inequality, social programs) and about cultural issues. Moreover, though younger voters tend to be more progressive, there is still a large pool of young voters on the right of the political spectrum. I thus think that dividing the electorate by age groups is not useful, except to explain variation in turnout.

The environment is a complicated topic because everyone is in favour of its protection. The question is how much, and most importantly who is going to pay. It is thus hard to create a cleavage in the electorate. In a nutshell, we talk about environment in this election, but it is not a crucial issue.

Perspectives on the 2019 Federal Elections; October 15, 5-7:30 pm; Faculty Club Ballroom (3450 McTavish). The event will be followed by a cocktail hour. Simultaneous translation will be available throughout the duration of the panel. Free admission. Learn more and register online.

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