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Changing Voter Trends Across Canada: National Trends

By Natalie Pikulski

Canadians are changing their political support which may mean a change in government come fall. Over the next four blog posts, I will examine federal polling data conducted since the last election held on October 9, 2015, up until May 4, 2019. These blogs will attempt to draw connections between trends observed in different demographic groups, compare them to the national average, and discuss any apparent differences to better understand the changes in public opinion toward the federal government over the last 4 years. The four blogs in this series analyze specific demographic trends, in this order; national overall trends, gender, age-groups, and regions. This first blog will outline general trends seen at the national level for all main political parties.

Polling data included in this blog series is based on weighted samples of decided and leaning voters. Only polls with accessible web links were included in our data collection for accuracy and reproduction purposes. We also ensured the polling questions asked in each poll were consistent with other polling organizations’ questions to allow for equal comparisons. Because of the limitations, all Nanos Research polls were not included since the question had respondents choose their top two choices rather than one choice like all other organizations. 

At the end of 2016, a little over a year since the federal election, Liberal support was steadily declining while Conservative support was rising. This rise and fall led the gap that was significant for the first year after the election between the two parties to close resulting in a neck and neck competition for most of 2018. The Conservatives eventually took a slight lead in 2019. The national polling data on the graph below shows the voting intentions of decided and leaning voters across Canada.

For a little over a year after the election, Liberal support remained steady between 45% to 50% but at the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017, a noticeable drop to about 35% to 45% support occurred. Although the exact reason is unknown, a considerable number of events occurred around this time that may have individually or cumulatively led to this drop. 

A gradual Conservative increase that began to overlap with the Liberals throughout late 2017 to early 2019 saw the party go from 25% – 35% support before 2017 to 30% – 45% after. The fall and rise of each party allowed for the significant gap following the election to eventually close and overlap for a considerable amount of time. In early 2019, a dramatic slide in Liberal support to about 25% – 35% allowed Conservatives to pull forward reaching 35% to almost 45% support in some polls.

Many commentators (1,2,34,5,6) suggest thatthis fall in Liberal support was due to the SNC-Lavalin scandal becoming headline news at this time which may explain why the drop was so sudden and apparent, but more investigation into these claims ought to be explored before a definitive explanation can be made. 

Other parties to note briefly are the NDP and Green. The NDP national averages are largely consistent with how the party is performing in regions across Canada, continuous and steady support with no real significant fall or rise since 2016, typically maintaining between 10% – 20% support. Support for the Green Party has been rising nationally, reaching 10% in 2019. This is significant as the party has polling even higher than the Bloc Quebecois since 2018 which is significant as they were pulling relatively similar support after the election at around 5% each. The small but still significant spike in Green support in early 2019 will be something to watch during the upcoming election to see if this popular support will translate into winning seats. 

The largest and most apparent trend when analyzing the polling data from the past few years was the significant fall in Liberal support and steady gain of the Conservative vote. The next blog will look at how this fall and gain of Canada’s two main federal parties compare between females and males. 

Part II. A decade of euphoric and resolution

By Sarah Stickland

In the previous blog, I explained that acid rain was in the pre-problem stage in the 1960s and that the public became concerned about acid rain in the 1980s.  This blog post will go over the policies the federal government implemented to reduce acid rain and an example of an industry implementing change.

In the 1970s the government implemented policy’s to reduce acid rain as a means to improve the air quality. The federal government created reduction targets.  By the late 1970s the federal government worked with the provinces to create a reduction plan. The reduction plan in 1983 was to reduce the about of sulphates in precipitation to less than 20 kg per hectare per year. Reference. The Federal government, under Prime Minister Mulroney, instituted the Canadian Acid Rain Control Program in 1985. The Canadian Acid Rain Control Program had three mandates: set targets and schedules to reduce emissions, develop new technologies to reduce emissions, and research and monitor emissions. Reference.  However, the industry were ahead of the government with technological advancements in the 1960s. Industries were reducing concentration of sulphur that went into the processing to lower the cost of production (Buhr 1998). Coincidently, there was an environmental benefit occurring at the same time, acid rain was slowing becoming resolved. The public acknowledged that there was a correlation between the industry reducing sulphur in production and reduction of acid rain. Industry’s continued to meet government reduction targets because it looked good for public image.

Figure 2: Canadian Sulphur Dioxide Emission (Source Canadian Government Report)

An example of an industry making changes is Falconbridge. Falconbridge is a smelting company in Sudbury, Ontario. Falconbridge created the Smelter Environmental Improvement Project to reduce sulphur in processing. One of the methods Falconbridge tried was a nickel-iron refinery and a pyrrhotite treatment plant, however it was unsuccessful because of economic reasons (Buhr 1998). Falconbridge was successful at maintaining below government regulations on sulphur dioxide per year.

Therefore, policymakers can control the public’s attitude about an issue. This is evident with the case of acid rain in Canada. Acid rain was problem long before the publics was focused on resolving the issue. The public entered the euphoric stage in the issue attention cycle after the federal government began implementing regulations to reduce emissions. Acid rain was resolved in the 1990s because the public become concerned and the demonstrated that it was an issue that the government needed to focus on through public opinion polls.  In other words, acid rain successfully went through the attention issue cycle without the public getting discouraged. The trend of the public concern for environmental policy continues into the 1990s with the case of ozone depletion.       

Part I. The pre-problem stage of acid rain

By Sarah Stickland

The relationship between policy and public opinion has been studied for decades. Some social scientists argue that the public opinion shapes policy. While others argue that policy shapes the publics opinion.  I believe that it is situational, but there is always a small minority pushing for policy change.  When it comes to environmental policy, this is the case of a minority making a continuous effort, and eventually succeeding.  The minority become a majority when the society feels threatened and believes they can make a change. Anthony Downs describes this an issue-attention cycle.  We can see this cycle in Canadian policy and public opinion towards acid rain between the 1960s and 1990s.

The issue attention is a five stage cycle that the public goes through when determining the priority of their interest. The stages are pre-problem, alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm, realizing the cost of significant progress, gradual decline of intense public interest, and the post-problem stage. The pre-problem stage emerges when there are undesirable social conditions and the problem is typically at the worst point here. The second stage the public becomes aware and alarmed about the problem and wants to find a solution to the problem. However, the public then becomes discouraged or not interested in making scarifies to rectify to the problem. This leads to a gradual decline in the public’s interest in solving the problem or another problem enters stage two of the cycle and this problem is forgotten (Downs 2001, 39-41). 

Figure 1: Canadian public opinion on acid rain (1980-1993)

Acid rain according to Environment and Climate Change Canada is, acid deposition caused by sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that enter the atmosphere and become acidic when in contact with water. Acid rain affects water quality, air quality and is a part of climate change. 

The pre-problem stage was happening the in 1960s and 70s. The acidic levels the air and water were high. This was especially the case in Sudbury, Ontario because it had industries using sulphur in the production process. At the same time, there was a small minority that pressured the federal government to control pollution and ensure clean air and water. This is evident with public opinion polls conducted by Environics, Canadian Gallup Poll, and Decimal Quarterly between 1980 and 1990 asking Canadians their opinion towards acid rain (figure 1). 

The data illustrates that the public entered stage two of the issue attention cycle in the late 1980s. This makes it a case where the public adjusted its preference in reaction to policy changes (Soroka and Wlezien 2004, 532). We know this because industries and both Federal and Provincial governments were already starting to solve acid rain prior to the peak of the public’s concern. Part II will explain how the public entered into the second stage, the policies implemented, and what we learned from this case.