Canada 2020: John Geddes in conversation with Frank Graves

The pollster on Canada's pronounced progressive swing

Frank Graves, founder of EKOS Research, is one of the country’s most thoughtful pollsters. He set the tone for the Canada 2020 conference with a tour of the Canadian public opinion landscape that featured, in his analysis, a pronounced swing toward the progressive side on everything from crime and foreign affairs, to the economy and social issues. Graves also set out a few pointedly provocative ideas, like touting the Australian model of mandatory voting as the antidote for falling Canadian voter turnout. He sat down with Maclean’s to talk with his signature confidence on how Canadians are thinking these days, and what it means for politics.

Earlier that day, Graves gave his 30-second pitch—on an escalator at the Ottawa Convention Centre—for where he sees Canada in 2020.


John Geddes: Frank Graves, you gave a very interesting and wide-ranging talk this morning to the Canada2020 conference on the views of Canadians and suggested a wave towards the progressive side of the spectrum. But I wanted to ask you about one element of that; that’s the view of Canadians on the international sphere, where Canada should be in the world. I ask specifically because Liberal leader Justin Trudeau you know, waded into that in the context of Iraq and Syria this morning. How do you think views on the place of Canada have changed, and what are the salient factors we should be aware of on that?

Frank Graves: It’s definitely in flux. Attitudes to the external world and how we should be dealing with it have been changing quite a bit in this century, and all that changed in a whiplash-like fashion following September 11, where the real focus was on security to a degree that we’d never seen it before. We’ve seen that that security ethic, which gripped Canadians and Americans, in a kind of upper North American unity, has relaxed its hold, and is now being replaced by a view that, you know, security is important, but maybe some of that almost obsessive focus on security has not necessarily insulated us from zero risk or made us risk-free, but has also cost us a lot of our core values such as civil liberties, freedom, maybe even our economy’s been mired down as we’ve been focused on these issues. So we see that Canadians are showing considerably less focus on issues of security than they did in the past. They’re saying maybe we should be returning to the foreign policy toolkit that worked for us so well in the past.

Geddes: Such as?

Graves: Such as, for example Canadians nostalgically remember the period when Canada was more known as peacekeepers rather than peacemakers. They also know that some of our really salient contributions on the world stage have not been as smaller versions of American military muscle but as diplomats, experts in development and aid, and so when you think about the array of the three Ds that we used to talk about, that’s diplomacy, development, which also I think includes trade now in the Canadian mindset, then I think they’re saying we’d like to rebalance things. That this somewhat more chauvinistic and militaristic period, which did find some favour with Canadians.

Geddes: Canadians were proud of Afghanistan, in many cases.

Graves: They were, but then in the rear view mirror, decisively, the view now is, ‘Well, you know what, I don’t think that all those efforts, most people say they either moved the yardstick backwards – things are actually worse than when we came, which is a tragedy, given the human and economic cost, or they say we spun our wheels, we really can’t detect a difference.’ Only about 25 per cent of Canadians believe we actually made a positive difference for all this massive expenditure that’s gone on. And that applies as well to Libya, and the view on Iraq, where we didn’t get involved, instructively, was that that was an utter disaster.

Geddes: So Canadians were happy we weren’t in the second Iraq war.

Graves: Yeah, here’s the people when they note the fact that Canadians, you know, and our government made this kind of moral decision not to go to Iraq; well that’s partly true, but it’s also true that we were polling for the government of the day nightly on that issue, and the support for it. Most Canadians support it.

People forget this: The support for going to Iraq was actually decisively in the majority.

Geddes: Really? That’s interesting.

Graves: It unravelled, basically, when the coalition of the willing became a substitute for the agents of the United Nations. And it came unravelled particularly quickly in Quebec, where military action has always been viewed with more tepid enthusiasm than the rest of the country. So that was what happened at that time, so yes we made the right decision, but it was guided by both morality and the polls.

Geddes: I want to move to some other issues, but before I leave world affairs and Canada’s place in the world, do you have any sense of how important it is for Canadians in voting intentions or the way they see themselves on the ideological spectrum, how world affairs play into that, or do people sort of define themselves more along the axis of domestic issues?

Graves: It’s a very good question and there are instances where issues related to world affairs, whether they be signing a NAFTA agreement or be they Iraq or Vietnam or other things, become extremely important. But for the most part, I think they’re an important ingredient of a broader optic that the public have on what the government stands for and how that’s conveying Canada to the world, and how we feel about ourselves and our role in the world. It’s interesting to note that even though we see some evidence that Canadians are becoming averse to more military adventure, it doesn’t mean that they are becoming isolationist or more parochial. Canadians are quite cosmopolitan. They think that the world is an important arena for Canada, whether we be there as traders or in development roles or diplomatic roles and occasionally in responsibility to protect, it is an important ingredient of how Canadians look at … so it can have an influence  on how people will vote but it’s not ballot booth question. People are not going to go in and say ‘Oh my God, I don’t know…’

Geddes: ‘Who’s got the foreign policy I like?’

Graves: Yeah, there may be occasions where it becomes a ballot booth issue, but I think it’s an important ingredient of how people form their choice.

Geddes: Frank, there was a…you talked a bit about issues involving people’s attitudes toward the economy and specifically whether or not they view themselves as in the middle class or think of themselves as rising members of the middle class or maybe stagnant or falling members. At Maclean’s we’ve been very interested in this subject, and some of the economists who write for our website have waded in a lot in the question of what is the real state of the middle class. Are Canadians getting poorer, are they getting richer, but you were suggesting that in a way, at least in understanding Canadian politics, those questions about the real state of the middle class matter less than the real attitude of people about their position, their security, whether they’re rising or falling. Can you talk to that?

Graves: There is a you know, kind of realpolitik idea that it doesn’t matter what numbers show, the official statistics may show this or that, but if the public feel this in their heart of hearts, then it really is the economy, stupid.

Geddes: What do they feel in their heart of hearts?

Graves: I mean, the numbers couldn’t be clearer. And by the way, the official stats, when you parse them properly, show that the public aren’t being foolish. There is stuff going on. And I would take serious issue with some of the more economistic treatments of the numbers that say “Oh yes, the middle class are doing swimmingly well.” Well, listen: We had upper North America, Canada and the United States are pretty well the same on this, experience growth rates in the last 40 years of the 20th century, of between four and five per cent. And that cumulatively spilled over each year into a better and better economy with more money to go around. What happened since, ironically it’s basically after September 11 we see this problem, we entered an age of stagnation. The growth rates of 4 and 5 per cent have been replaced with growth rates between 1 and 2 per cent, if you count in the interruptions of the 2008 recession. Not only that, there’s been a dramatic shift in the incidence of how those, that more tepid growth is distributed, with a much greater fraction going to a much smaller group at the top. So basically, you can say the middle class is doing really well, but it’s hard to defy the laws of economic gravity. If you had things growing at five per cent that now grow at two per cent, and it’s being distributed more unequally, how can that possibly be the fuel of a better middle class?

Geddes: So accepting that that’s the reality, how is that translating into people’s attitudes and how important is that in people framing their own sense of where they fit in that society?

Graves: The public believe that’s a defining issue. In simplest terms, the public feel with a  matter of conviction and consensus that having an optimistic and growing middle class that’s moving forward is an essential precondition to a healthy economy and a healthy society. By equally strong consensus, nobody thinks that’s happening anymore. And I would argue that the numbers suggest that when you look at how this unravelling—as you move from seniors who did do quite well to boomers where things are more mixed and to Gen X and below where no, it’s not working nearly as well, they’re not doing better as well as their parents.

Geddes: You had an interesting statistic, I don’t know if you can rhyme it off, having to do with people’s view of whether their children or grandchildren will do better than them.

Graves: There are two statistics that are really disturbing, because of this grey outlook of the future, where people say, ‘Gee, I don’t know if we’re moving ahead like we used to.’ We always used to do better. You used to work hard, you come up with a better mousetrap, and you have a few luxuries: you get a car, you get a house, you do better than your dad or mom, and your kids will do better, and you’ll be secure in your retirement. People no longer feel that’s on. And you know what, some of the evidence suggests they’re right. But when you ask people to think about, how does this look down the road? Let’s go 25 years down the road, which is about a generational lens—13 per cent of Canadians think the next generation is going to be doing better than this one. It’s 9 per cent in the United States, which makes them a little wrose, but that’s a horrible statistic. And when we look at the numbers and ask, ‘Okay, how are you doing compared to your dad in a fair and technical comparison, if you’re making more or less money than your dad did.’ And for seniors, absolutely, everybody says I’m doing much better, only 15% say they’re doing worse. But when we go to boomers that number rises to 30, and we go to Gen X and below 45 is that number rises to almost 50. What we’re seeing in a very short period of time is a period where people did do better through hard work and effort is being replaced by an era not only of stagnation, there’s a threefold rise in the rate of intergenerational downward mobility. The hard evidence, when it starts coming in–it takes longer to assemble that than asking people in social surveys—is confirming that these trends really are happening. So when people are saying, this is some kind of exaggerated illusion, they’re just ignoring what the public are experiencing.

Geddes: And Frank, unlike the world picture or Canada in the world picture we discussed earlier, I take it from the way you’re discussing it that this could define where people fit in the political world.

Graves: We asked people to make a straightforward choice: Some people say that Canada’s middle class is world-class and doing very well and this really is not an issue, equality questions go round; others say the middle class is falling backward and is pessimistic and is the defining issue of our day. 70-30 is the way people pick on that question—actually I think it’s stronger, closer to 75-25. So for the public, which lines up pretty well with the government’s constituency versus everyone else, it is the case that people who are supporting the government—the shrinking portion, the last poll had them slightly under 25 per cent for the first time ever, which came out today—feel they are doing well, and feel like they’re going to do better in the future, and in some objective ways they are. But guess what—for the other 3 in 4 Canadians, they’re not feeling that mirthful kind of sense of cheer about the economy. They feel they’re actually falling backward and they feel the future looks really dark indeed.

And that’s really unfortunate because actually Canada has enormous advantages which probably will only get stronger as time goes on due to geopolitical reorganization around climate change, energy access, movements of populations. We should not be aspiring—whether you pick IMF or CIA or World Bank statistics, we’ve gone from first or second in the world in per-capita GDP to 11th or 22nd—we should be aiming for number 1 and not happy, ‘oh we’re on our way to number 35?’ And I think that’s what the public feel is: they want someone to say, we can put a blueprint together here that restarts progress, that makes this middle-class miracle of the late 20th century something that’s on again.