The cautionary tale of Kellie Leitch: Stephen Maher on populism

Good reporting and analysis by Maher:

Still, there is no reason to be complacent.

Pollster Frank Graves, who recently completed a polling project for the Canadian Press to explore the prospects for northern populism, sees a shift in Canadian attitudes about the economy, immigration and trade that could provide an opening for someone like Leitch.

“I think Kouvalis was likely onto something in that this was a more resonant strategy,” Graves said Wednesday. “I think Kellie Leitch was mining a vein of this new ordered-populist outlook, which is expressing itself in the United Kingdom with Brexit and with Trump in the United States.”

Graves polled thousands of Canadians, putting them on a spectrum from open—pro-trade, with positive views on immigration—to ordered. He found a growing group of Canadians—particularly in southern Ontario—who are anxious about their economic prospects, hostile to the elite policy consensus, anxious about immigration and skeptical about the benefits of trade.

The highest scores were in Oshawa, Barrie, London, Hamilton and Windsor, places where many workers have had to leave traditional industrial jobs, much like the rust-belt voters who made Trump president.

The trend has reversed somewhat since 2015, when Justin Trudeau was elected, but Graves believes there is a significant constituency for a populist message, based mostly on economic pessimism. “It begins with economic despair but then mutates into fear of others, nativism, racism,” he says.

In 2002, 68 per cent of Canadians described themselves as middle class. By 2017, it had fallen as low as 43 per cent. Many people feel they are losing ground, and they are not convinced that the elites are looking out for their best interests.
“They say, quite rightly, this didn’t work for us,” says Graves. “We’re pissed off.”

But I don’t think that this means we can expect a Trump-style figure to arise in Canada. It’s hard to put together an anti-trade message that works in a country as dependent on exports as Canada is, and we are likely better at smoothly managing immigration than any other country in the world.

Ford, the most successful populist in recent Canadian history, was politically incorrect but he succeeded politically because he connected with non-white voters.

The Reform Party, which once flirted with anti-immigrant messages, abandoned those ideas and, after merging with the Progressive Conservatives, sent Jason Kenney around the country to connect with ethnic Canadians, a key part of their winning election strategy.

Conservatives who watched the party lose in 2015 after playing with divisive anti-Muslim rhetoric, do not think it is a winner at the ballot box. “For every vote you win that way, how many do you lose?” said one strategist.

There may come a day when anti-immigrant messages help someone like Leitch get ahead in Canadian politics, but her political career is a cautionary tale that ambitious would-be Trumps will ignore at their peril. In that sense, we should be grateful to her for her public service.

Source: The cautionary tale of Kellie Leitch

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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