Paul Wells on ‘accidentally’ predicting the federal Liberals’ demise


My first print column of 2011 was accidentally prescient. I say “accidentally” because I didn’t even realize one of the points I was making. Re-reading the piece with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see not only how Stephen Harper managed to hold power, but also how the NDP could make such strong advances. Yet I ignored the evidence at the time and continued to treat the NDP as a non-story until that became impossible in late April. My bad.

The column used a then-new poll to show how completely public faith in the Liberals had shattered:

A new poll from an upstart Ottawa polling house, Abacus Data, asked respondents how they felt about the three big national political parties. Abacus found respondents were likelier to agree the Conservative party “keeps its promises” than the Liberals or New Democrats do. They were also likeliest to agree the Conservative party “has a good team of leaders,” “has sensible policies,” and is “professional in its approach.”…

Abacus found Canadians have less trouble agreeing about the Liberals. When comparing the three parties, respondents were least likely to agree that Michael Ignatieff’s party “keeps its promises,” “understands the problems facing Canada,” “looks after the interests of people like me,” “defends the interests of people in my province,” “has a good team of leaders,” “stands for clear principles,” “has sensible policies,” or is “professional in its approach.”

But look on the bright side. The Liberals did not finish behind the Conservatives and New Democrats on every measure. Among the three parties, respondents were likeliest to agree it’s the Liberals who are “divided” and “will promise anything to win votes.”

There’s a rule of thumb in campaigning: when there’s a gap between the way voters perceive a party leader and the way they intend to vote, one of those two numbers must move. Either voting intentions will move into line with perceptions (people abandon the party they used to think they liked) or, less dramatic, perceptions move to meet intentions (people finally decide they like the party they’ve been planning to vote for). Michael Ignatieff could change none of the catastrophic perceptions I’ve listed during the campaign. Voting intentions moved to meet those perceptions. Today Michael Ignatieff is doing more or less what he was doing in 2005.

What lessons will hindsight be teaching a year from now? That will be easier for contributors to our comment board, who are always right about everything, to answer than it is for me. I am not yet gifted at learning the lessons of hindsight beforehand.




  1. I think the extent to which the Liberals will fight the NDP for the Toronto-Danforth seat in the inevitable by-election will be a good indicator of their ability to make a comeback.  Will they nominate a lion or lamb?  Will they send Rae door knocking?  Will they spend big bucks on ads?  Taking urban seats (especially from NDP) is key to recovery of the Liberals.

    If they win the seat it will be a big boost and if they lose it may be no big deal.  But if they lose without putting up a big fight then they will have demonstrated that they are not serious about moving out of third party status.  

    • I don’t think they have a hope in hell in that riding.

    • So if they lose that riding but take the six GTA ridings that the CPC won by less than 1000 votes, what should we think? 

  2. Abacus…isn’t that the one owned by Tim Powers and other Cons at Summa, the lobbying firm?

    • That’s like the funniest thing you ever wrote, and you’ll never even understand why. 

      • It’s a simple question Paul….I have no idea who they are, I just read it online, and asked you.

        • Emily did word it as a question Paul. I don’t know either.

        • If the question was predictable, then perhaps it should have been explained.

          • “I think we’re vastly over-invested in universities. Universities should be relatively small and provide excellent education and research in a number of specialized areas. I think the vast majority of young people should be going through non-university, post-secondary training.” Stephen Harper Sept. 15, 2000

          • More welders and ice road truck drivers. Makes sense.

          • @twitter-350934444:disqus 

            Yup, welders, truck-drivers….and plumbers no doubt. LOL

            Sounds exciting, no?

      • Well, are they? Isn’t it just a touch relevant?

        • Too true. A Conservative-friendly polling firm pretty much had its finger on the pulse of the nation and the Conservatives triumphed in the election later that year. Maybe the Liberals should have hired them instead of Donolo.

          • Scott Reid:
            “Alberta can blow me.”

            Scott Reid about the Conservative child care plan:
            “Don’t give people 25 bucks a week to blow on beer and popcorn”

            Scott Reid about Stephen Harper’s opponents:
            “Their imperative could not be more clear: kill him. Kill him dead.”

          • @s_c_f:disqus 

            Yes, and your point is?

          • I’m just repeating your favorite taking point.  You always love to discredit something due to the source, and in this case, the source of that quote is one the most vile concoctions of liberal scum in Canada.  Scott Reid makes Original Emily look like Einstein and Mother Teresa rolled into one.  Scott Reid is the epitome of partisan lying toadery, and should have been put out to pasture long ago, like all other manure. According to your standards, anything he writes is a sack of sh*t.

          • @s_c_f:disqus 

            Always with the over-the-top partisanship.

  3. When I read that, I think of Dalton McGuinty’s “I know I’m not popular, but I’ve made tough choices” ad. In which he goes on to list the promises he’s kept and things he’s accomplished on issues that matter to Ontarians in a matter of fact tone that sounds both professional and sensible.

    Seems designed to address the perceptions cited above more or less directly.

    Could the Federal Liberals do the same? Understanding that they’ll be playing a weaker hand from without the incumbent advantage and with their 3rd leader in as many elections? Can the NDP do it better?

    I’m sure hindsight will eventually reveal the answers to these questions. Or, perhaps more likely, it’ll reveal better questions that we should be asking now.

    • “Could the Federal Liberals do the same?”

      No. The McGuinty ads worked because McGuinty was the brand that needed rebuilding, not the Ontario Liberals. Who’d narrate the federal Liberal ad? Certainly won’t be Chretien or Martin. And is the problem with the federal Liberals that they broke a few promises while governing? No, it’s that they aren’t different enough from either the Conservatives or the NDP to really matter while the voters of those parties are happy with their respective party.

      • In my view you nailed it. From a liberal standpoint i hope the cons go further out in right field and/or the ndp choke on their own contradictions. Otherwise the libs are in for more lean times.

        • It may have to be baby steps for the Liberals. It may well take misteps from the other parties to give them an opening to address some of these perception problems, but there are others that are still within their control.

          The perception that they are a party divided against itself is one. The perception that they will do anything to win votes is another. Messaging that concentrates on unity and commitment to pragmatic policies over popular ones might address this.

          One thing I think the Liberals need to stop doing is instantly becoming the champions of the other side the moment the Conservatives do something that doesn’t have 100% support.

          Maybe the message should even be that a Liberal Government wouldn’t be all that different than the one we have now – but there would be some ways in which it would be different and, presumably, better.

  4. There’s a rule of thumb in campaigning: when there’s a gap between the way voters perceive a party leader and the way they intend to vote, one of those two numbers must move

    Or, most polling on voting intentions/politics these days is unreliable. A point impossible to prove. Hence endless speculation/analysis.  

    • Are they really though? Every pollster pretty much saw the large swing up in NDP voting intentions in the last election and most polls are in the ballpark when it comes to voter intentions. It’s when journalists (and partisans) try to read the tea leaves in the daily fluctuations of a tracking poll that we need to tune out. Especially when it’s every freakin’ day and they mix up different polls.

  5. It may be a little more than a year from now, but the lesson people will be learning by 2013 will be that arrogance, hubris, and entitlement will do to the Harper Government what it did to all of his multi-term predecessors.

  6. Looks like the Conservatives made good use of the polls and paid attention to the responses, thus the “strong, stable, Conservative majority government” mantra.
    Best comment from McParland, NP:
    “Harper isn’t changing Canada. He’s demonstrating that Canada has changed
    Canada’s moderate, middle-of-the-road approach has long been to align itself with whatever consensus was viewed at the moment as representative of the best intentions. It was an approach crafted to avoid criticism rather than achieve concrete goals. The Harperites have rejected it, and thus earned the enmity of diehard fence-sitters. The popularity of the government, and the majority it was handed in May, suggest many Canadians have had enough of the fence, and no longer see it as dangerous for Canada to have an opinion of its own.”

    • Canada hasn’t changed….that’s just more Con hoopla

    • As usual OE lives in her own little world.
      “Why the poor cast votes for Conservatives
      – People in low-income neighbourhoods are the biggest victims of the drug dealers and violent young offenders Harper is promising to lock up. They want relief from the violence they can’t escape. They want to rid their communities of the gangs that lure their children into gun-and-gang culture. Crime crackdowns make sense to them.
      – What Canadians struggling to make ends meet want most is a job; not government benefits, not abstract poverty-reduction plans, certainly not charity. Harper tapped into that yearning, promising to stabilize the economy and create employment. The New Democrats, aiming to beat him at his own game, said they would cut small business taxes.”

  7. Alfred E Neuman ~ In retrospect it becomes clear that hindsight is definitely overrated

  8. Paul, your quoted passage reminds me a bit of what Andrew Steele recently posted over on his G&M blog.  He was talking about the fact that the LPC’s traditional flexibility, centrism and adaptability are positive attributes when in power, but serious liabilities when in opposition.  I think there’s something to that.  In turn, that leads to the current phenomenon I see, where about the only thing that partisan Liberals seem to universally agree in is that Harper Sucks.  So they spend all, or most, of their time talking about how Harper and the Conservatives Suck and everything they do Sucks.  They spend precious little time telling us precisely what a Liberal government would do differently.  Because once they start talking about that, it becomes evident that there’s not a lot of agreement in LPC circles regarding what kind of alternative they should be offering — e.g., Trudeau-Pearson activism?  NDP Lite?   Martinite Blue Liberalism?  Fiscal rectitude?

    I’ve witnessed card-carrying Liberals rip in to John Manley with a viciousness that truly astounds me.  This is a seriously divided party, on policy and ideological grounds, when it doesn’t have the soothing balm of power to please the faithful.

    • I don’t really see it being any different with the cons or even the ndp for that matter. In this country in particular leadership or the perception of it is everything – the libs just hav’nt had any for a while. When Chretien ruled the roost i’ll bet most of the partisan opposition criticism was about how much he sucked. [f Harper were gone the CPC would have problems too – maybe not as big problems].
      It may well be true the libs are not well structured to be out of power but i think they’ll do
       ok under a leader that’s either well liked or respected/feared and they’re restructuring now..
      so far Rae’s doing a fine job. It’s why i think the present mantra of the libs not looking for a saviour is misplaced. Sure they don’t need a wannabe Trudeau redux, but they badly need a fairly likeable, experienced or dynamic leader to coalesce around. I can’t think of a Canadian political party that hasn’t[ federally anyway] succeeded without strong leadership.

    • The only thing I can see is a concerted attempt by some to push in the direction of progressivism and try to marginalize the Manleys and other Blue Liberals.

      This makes me think a few things:
      1. they are moving in the opposite direction of history
      2. such a move would do nothing to try to siphon off Conservative voters, the largest bloc of voters in the country, and in fact would drive a number of Liberals towards the Conservatives, which is certainly a bizarre strategy.
      3. When the NDP were in third party status, they never did anything like it.

  9. I see that Dot and OE are looking down their noses at graduates of Technical Colleges and Trade schools. Lets see how smart they are when their crapper backs up, their car breaks down, or the lights in the house don’t work.

    • Oh, are we back to the “not everyone should have an education” meme?

      • Not at all but when you laugh at people whose choice of education and career is as important as the ones who get a PHD then I get a little annoyed at the you and your so-called “elites”.

        • If you want a job, get a trade

          If you want an education, get a degree.

          • Go tell your plumber that they are uneducated. See how soon you’ll get your toilet fixed.

          • Go tell your heart surgeon he’s an elitist snob.

            See how soon you get your heart fixed.

          • For some reason, there is no reply function to OE’s post. As I am grateful to the young surgeon who repaired my knee a couple of months ago, he is also equally grateful to the tradespeople who built him a house that will keep him warm and dry for many years.

          • @f21a18bbaf34fc0ab1b6cbe7bed04f70:disqus 

            Then you’re both happy, so it’s all good….not to mention somewhat medieval.

      • Emily’s latest:  skilled tradespeople don’t have an education. Priceless.

        • Learning how to weld is learning how to weld.

          It is not an education…it’s a job skill

          • Wow, you repeated it.

          • Yes, it’s not rocket science you know.

            Just a simple job skill.

        • Me thinks she should lay off the egg nog, lol

    • I see that Dot …yada yada yada

      No you don’t.

  10. My guess for the lesson of 2012 is that a multi-decade binge of debt across the first world cannot go on forever, and that prosperity is not something that should be taken for granted. Debt financing will eventually dry up. My prediction is that future historians will ask “how could they not see it coming? How could they be so blind?”. However, Canada is in very good position relative to the other developed economies with respect to this issue, so Canada will not be at the forefront.

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