View From the Hill by Keith Beardsley – Voter perception matters – Cornwall Ontario – July 23, 2010

Cornwall ON – The latest round in the census story has seen the Chief Statistician resign. While not an earth shattering event for the general public, who probably didn’t even know the position existed until yesterday, it helps to feed the media line of a government in crisis.

Certainly at the political level, many staff consider this to be an issue that is confined to the “Ottawa Bubble” and one that average Canadians aren’t interested in and which they aren’t paying any attention too.

To a certain extent this is true. I doubt that Canadians will be standing around their BBQ this weekend wringing their hands over the resignation of the Chief Statistician. But that is not where the problem exists.

Governments or political parties are rarely defeated in an election based on a single over riding issue, generally it’s a combination of factors and the impression voters have of the party, its issues and the leader. There have been exceptions such as the Bomarc missile, wage and price controls, Free Trade and to a certain extent the sponsorship scandal.  More often than not, governments are defeated by the overall impression they leave with voters. This impression is formed over time, in some cases years.

A governing party certainly has to keep its base on side and that never changes regardless of which party is in power. However, to win and to win a majority they have to reach out to others who do not traditionally support them. These voters tend to be rather fickle with their support waning or increasing throughout a government’s term. These additional voters will determine a majority, minority or a loss for the present government.

In politics, perception is often reality. If a government is perceived by the public to be incompetent, a bully, stubborn, unwilling to admit a mistake or arrogant, then there is a good possibility that voters will want to defeat them. The census issue by itself will not lead to the defeat of this government, but it will help voters form an opinion of it and of Harper.

Looking at the government’s track record over the summer and so far we have the Guergis/Jaffer affair, a sole sourced multi-billion dollar contract, the census issue, spending on the G8/G20, the fake lake, comments from the head of CSIS, the HST deal with Ottawa/BC/Ontario and   the shenanigans by ministers at committee.  These events have certainly left the average voter with an impression of this government, and setting aside partisanship, is it the type of impression the government wants voters to have of its term in office?

This government is far from being defeated, especially with a weak Official Opposition, but it can’t keep making mistakes, especially mistakes of their own doing. Clearly the census issue got away from them. Their communications strategy wasn’t up to par; at least they should have been able to back up their comments with real facts and not general comments about receiving 1000s of letters when they don’t appear to exist. At the same time staff should have been aware well in advance as to who would attack them and how and have already positioned the issue to the government’s advantage, instead of fighting a rear guard action every day.

The government needs to put this issue behind them and move on to more important issues that clearly demonstrate their positive abilities such as managing the economy. This census issue is not a hill for them to die on, but one to learn from their mistakes and but behind them.

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.




  1. “The government needs to. . . move on to more important issues,” you say, Keith. Obsessed with power and trivializing anything and anyone standing in its way, when has this government demonstrated any interest in or capability for dealing with important issues?

  2. Lets get the airplane thing straight once and for all. It was the liberal party years ago that funded research to the tune of several hundred million dollars for the jsf replacement for the f18. What we were going to buy was a foregone conclusion long ago partly to help Canadian companies to secure contracts for the program, Oh and your right I could care less about the census non-issue as do most Canadians.

  3. The airplane issue was started by the Liberals way back when and was brought to fruition by the Conservatives. Whats wrong with that? They are just doing what we pay them to do.

  4. “resignation of the Chief Statistician” or retiring? Would he have felt so strongly if only had 3 years of service in?

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