Goar: Angry grey clouds on Tory horizon

Originally published in the Toronto Star on March 17th, 2011. To go to the Toronto Star website please click here

Conservative strategists conduct polls and focus groups constantly. They pore over the results looking for trends and trouble spots. So it can’t have escaped their notice that support for Stephen Harper’s government is dropping rapidly among older voters.

But they aren’t talking about it — not publicly at least.

Susan Eng, on the other hand, is eager to discuss what’s happening. She is the vice-president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), which represents voters over 55.

Over the past five weeks, according to CARP’s biweekly survey of its members, support for the Conservative government has fallen precipitously. On Feb. 11, it had the backing of 52 per cent of older voters. Now it’s down to 41 per cent.

“CARP members have been among the most loyal cohorts for the Conservative government,” Eng said. “They nonetheless draw the line at the disparagement of parliamentary institutions, of which they are very proud and which they will defend. They will break party loyalty over this.”

The Conservatives can’t afford to lose the support of older Canadians. Not only do they make up 37 per cent of the electorate; they carry disproportionate weight because of their high voter turnout (70 per cent compared to a national average of 59).

CARP’s latest poll, conducted March 12-13, pinpoints three reasons for the drop:

• Last week’s rulings by the Speaker of the House of the Commons: The government broke the rules of Parliament twice. First it refused to remove International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda, who deliberately misled Parliament, from cabinet; then it failed to provide cost estimates for its crime legislation and corporate tax cuts.

• The Federal Court of Appeal’s judgment saying the Conservative party violated election financing laws in its 2008 campaign.

• And the Prime Minister’s cavalier dismissal of both rebukes: “You win some, you lose them,” Harper said offhandedly.

“That really got up their noses,” Eng said.

Most CARP members still believe the Conservatives provide competent, fiscally sound government. They like its right-of-centre approach. But they can no longer tolerate Harper’s disrespect for democratic principles and disdain for Canadians.

Eng has seen reversals like this before. When Harper prorogued Parliament in early 2010, Conservative support among CARP members plunged to an-all time low of 38 per cent. But it crept back up when the House of Commons resumed. Last summer, when the government cancelled Canada’s full-length census, Tory support dipped to 43, but again recovered.

It could happen a third time, Eng acknowledges. “But if an election is called next week, they’re in trouble.”

More than 2,000 CARP members participated in the March 12-13 survey. The results were analyzed by a professional pollster, John Corbett, formerly of Gallup Canada. The margin of error was 2.2 per cent.

CARP does not claim its sample is a representative cross-section of older voters. Its members tend to be better educated, more computer literate, more politically engaged and slightly wealthier than their age cohort as whole. More men than women take part in the survey. Even so, this group has been a reliable election bellwether in the past.