Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Conservative "Surge": Perception and Reality

I usually do not comment on polls. I find the media and the pundits so misread what most polls say that if I were to comment on all of their mistakes I would never get any of my own work done. However, the characterization of the latest Strategic Council poll was so outrageous I could not let it pass.

First the perception: There is not doubt that the poll seems to indicate a drop in Liberal support. That is helped along nicely by the overcharged rhetoric of CTV and the Globe and Mail. If I believed in such a thing I would say they they are biased against the Liberals, but in reality it is probably just them trying to sell some sizzle with a rather thin steak.

However, the poll and their analysis is not good news for the Liberals because it does create the perception of decay in support. No party can like being in that position when an election is imminent.

However, most Canadians do not live and breath politics so this poll will be quickly forgotten by them as they focus on other things they consider more important, although the perception the poll generates may linger.

That lingering perception has a nice silver lining, which I will go into in greater detail later.

The reality: This is a new poll that was conducted using a different methodology from previous polls and a different questionnaire from previous polls.

All polls are stand alone entities. They are a snapshot in time. It is possible to take a series of polls that use the same methodology and roughly discern a trend but to do so is fraught with pitfalls because they use different samples every time so they are not truly longitudinal surveys.

So when a pollster switches polling methodology they break the chain and they cannot state the new poll indicates a change in a 'trend' with any degree of validity.

Strategic Council demonstrated this themselves during the last election. At the beginning they were placing the "Party Support" question (the money question because that is the question the poll sponsor is really paying for) at the beginning of their poll questionnaire and the results showed a neck-in-neck race. Half way through the election they buried the money question in a new questionnaire and had it preceded by a bunch of questions regarding government accountability. Naturally, the results of that new poll resulted in better estimates for the Conservatives. So much so, they wound up in majority territory even though no other pollster put them there. Of course, they published a poll just before election day that was in line with other pollsters and I think the reason why is they put the money question back at the beginning, although I cannot prove it because I could never find that last questionnaire.

Both methods are statistically valid but needless to say that all things being equal you will get markedly different results for each poll and you cannot say with certainly why the results are different.

So no one can say the Conservatives have surged because the new poll is disconnected from previous polls. As well, changing the methodology of a poll will effect it results and you can never completely calculate what effect the change of methodology has on the results.

So while it is valid compare the results of this poll to the previous poll and state the Liberals are down a certain amount and the Conservatives are up a certain amount, you cannot say with absolute certainty that the change is truly the result in the change of support and not the change in methodology. And it is certainly a rather large mischaracterization to look at this poll and say the Conservatives have "surged".

Reality point number two: Despite the new methodology and questionnaire the difference between the two big parties in just 5 points. This is also despite the good results on the internals of the poll. Mr. Gregg, actually said something that was telling and I really wonder if he meant to say it. He stated, and I am paraphrasing, "Alot of Canadians respect Mr. Harper but they still do not seem to agree or like his policies". Interesting statement and very logical. I may like and respect the salesman but if I do not like what he is peddling I am still not buying.

I would also point out that the internals are not much different than they were last year when it was PM Martin facing Leader of the Opposition Harper. The sitting PM always has the better internals in between elections but it can change in a heartbeat once the writ is dropped. Just ask Mr. Martin about that.

Reality point number three: The Liberals have been hovering between 30-34% for almost a year. This is the first poll that puts them below that in a very long time. Considering what I stated above we cannot say with any certainty why the level of support has changed. The change in methodology could be a factor, although considering the magnitude of the drop it is reasonable to assume some of it is a result in the erosion of support. Why that support eroded is a whole new argument and this poll would not be very useful in such an argument.

Reality point number four: The undecided estimates are at 23%. Yikes.

Unintended consequences of creating the perception of the decay of Liberals support: This is the silver lining.

The pressure is now off of the Liberals and Mr. Dion and it is now placed squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Harper. This poll could have the effect of lowering expectations amongst the electorate for the Liberals and Mr. Dion. Therefore, if they can mount a reasonably competent election campaign they will exceed those expectations and grow their support.

That is what happened to Mr. Harper last year. No one expected much from him or the Conservatives. Yet he did run a competent, if uninspired, campaign and managed to eke out a victory.

Conversely, Mr. Harper will have to run a more than competent campaign to grow his support.

This does not mean that the Liberals should be complacent. For example they, should take the results of this poll to heart and present a united front on the issues. They no longer have the luxury to be divided over such esoteric issues as the extention of some of the provisions of the anti-terror laws. Talk about it, debate it, but once the leader makes a decision accept it and move on.

As well, the perception this poll could generate also means they will need to work hard to make sure they can run at least a competent campaign and maybe even run one that Canadians can find a little inspiring.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Neo-cons are here to stay

There has been a large and permanent change in the Canadian political landscape. It began happening a while ago so it is not earth shattering but it is significant and it has some significant implications for the future of politics in this country.

It is a matter of faith amongst many progressives and old Tories that the Stephen Harper brand of conservatism is an anomaly that will disappear in Canada when he finally receives his well deserved walking papers from the Canadian electorate. Afterwards the myth goes, true Toryism will rise again and take its rightful place in the Canadian political landscape as the neo-cons scurry back into their caves.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The old Tory Party is dead, it will probably not be resurrected and the Tory tradition that it kept alive will eventually wither away under pressure from the progressives and the neo-cons.

The person who finally confirmed that was Garth Turner. Contrary to some beliefs he is not a Liberal or a Red Tory, he is a dyed in the wool Blue Tory. He has been such for as long as he has been in public life. The fact he could not find a home in the Conservative Party of Canada speaks volumes and it pretty much puts the final nail into the Canadian Tory coffin.

In addition if you look at the possible replacements for Mr. Harper, when we finally give him the heave-ho, there is only one amongst them who could be considered remotely moderate and that is Jim Prentice. However, his purported moderation is the result of him not cleaving to the social conservatism that many of his neo-con cohorts cleave to. As well, he is somewhat less ideological and more pragmatic than his neo-con brethren but that does not make him a Tory or the standard bearer for an eventual Tory resurgence. Despite is smoother edges he is a neo-con through and through.

Finally, there are very few voices amongst the Canadian political right at large that could be considered Tory. If you peel away the heated rhetoric, insults, bullying and general cement headedness of the average Conservative supporter in the media and on the Blogging Tories you will find people who admire the stalwarts of the neo-conservative movement such as Dick Cheney, George Bush and others of that ilk. There are very few who show any admiration to the likes of Joe Clark, Bob Stanfield or other former standard bearers of the Tories. Even Brian Mulroney is not admired for his ideas, he is admired for some mythical ability he is supposed to have to guide Stephen Harper to six decades of Conservative governance.

When Stephen Harper finally does go these folks will still be around. They will only rally around someone who supports the same bloodyminded conservatism that they believe in. Anybody that shows true Tory leanings will be destroyed, although that will not prevent them from supporting someone who is of the true faith that can act like a compassionate Tory conservative as they will be more electable.

So Liberals, true Tories and progressives had better get used to the new political reality and they had better be prepared for a long struggle to hold back the narrow-minded, means spirited, socially conservative neo-cons that now menace the Canadian political landscape.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

What is to become of the human species?

The conclusions of the conference on climate change are eye openers, depressing and they lead to whole host of other questions that need to be answered.

First of all the depressing part. Global warming is happening, it is being caused by human activity, temperatures are likely to rise by 2C to 6C by the end of this century and they are likely to take at least a 1000 years to begin falling again.

I believe that it was the same group of scientists who warned, in 2001, that we may be approaching a tipping point where global warming occurs regardless of any change in human behaviour. I guess we can safely assume that we passed that tipping point many years ago.

As a corollary to that we can conclude that the first part of the global warming debate is over. It is happening and it is going to continue to happen for at least the next two generations. So if you are one of those who still denies the existance of global warming get with the program.

Now some of the questions:

Will the rise in temperatures continue into the next century? Or to put it another way will temperature eventually stabilize at a certain level or continue rising? The report is silent on that very important point I would hope the climate science community will begin looking to answer this question.

Can we minimize the rise in temperature over the next century. I am no expert on this science but I can only assume that a rise of 2C by the end of the century is probably better than a rise of 6C. For now we should assume the answer is yes because the alternative is unthinkable.

A final question is what are we going to do to deal with the effects of global warming in the coming decades?

I have seen many people who claim that trying to deal with global warming now will cause unspeakable harm to our economy. To which I respond, whether we pay the price now or pay it later we cannot avoid the costs of global warming.

During the 1990s there was much talk about the national debt, which is why Paul Martin eliminated the federal fiscal deficit. I would submit that we are now beginning to see that we are accumulating a global debt and we are continuing to add to that debt by the day. Just like the national debt is going to be a burden on future generations of Canadians the global climate change debt is going to be a massive burden on future generations of the human species.

I would submit that we have to begin taking measures to pay that debt down now. We need to take measures to reduce our GHG emissions in real terms sooner rather than later. Any plan that calls for increasing our GHG emissions is hopelessly insufficient. We need to take them even if other countries in the world will not follow suit right away. We need to begin addressing this issue because our children and grandchildren cannot do it for themselves.