Bluffs Advocate

Opinion Optics

Harper, a Wartime PM

Policy is just politics for the prime minister

By Marc Zwelling

            Stephen Harper’s full-throated support for Ukraine’s government shows the prime minister’s penchant for calculating the politics of everything his Conservative government does.
           Whether it’s the seats he can win or the donations the Conservative Party can raise, policy is just politics for the PM. Harper’s trip to Ukraine in March is Exhibit A.
           Two months before Russia annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine, the Postmedia News parliamentary reporter, Lee Berthiaume, called Ukrainian descendants “a key voting bloc” in Canada’s electorate.
           Berthiaume noted that in the 2011 election, “the Conservatives managed to win several ridings with large Ukrainian populations such as Etobicoke Centre in Toronto and Elmwood-Transcona in Winnipeg . . . that had previously gone to the Liberals and New Democrats.”
           Harper compares Russian president Vladimir Putin’s seizing Crimea with Adolf Hitler’s annexing Austria in 1938. “We have not seen this kind of behaviour since the Second World War,” Harper told Parliament in early March. “This is clearly unacceptable.”
           It’s safe to stand up to Russian bullies, of course, when you don’t have to actually fight them. But who, exactly, is Harper standing up for? Certainly the Kiev protestors want democracy, but are they representative of the Ukrainian public?
           Thanks to survey research we don’t have to guess. The Gallup organization conducted face-to-face interviews with thousands of adults in Ukraine from 2008 to 2013.
           According to last year’s poll, among people in western Ukraine—those geographically closest to Europe—57 per cent believe “a Western-style democratic republic” is the most suitable system for Ukraine.
           But in central Ukraine (which includes Kiev), fewer than a third (30 per cent) prefer Western-style democracy. In the east, which includes Crimea with its many ethnic Russians, only 15 per cent prefer democracy. The poll found that a 57 per cent majority in Crimea thinks “the old Soviet system” is the most appealing.
           As usual, Harper is more bellicose than most voters. Canadians like to settle conflicts, not fight them. A Harris/Decima national poll conducted February 20-24 asked, “When it comes to conflicts around the world, what is your preferred approach for Canada to take?”
                      • 74 per cent prefer “a peacekeeping role”
                      • 8 per cent prefer “financial support to its allies”
                      • 7 per cent say “a military role”
                      • 5 per cent prefer giving “no support to these conflicts”
                      • 6 per cent had no opinion.
           Canadians only need to think of Afghanistan to cool their passion to fight Putin. The Ipsos Reid market research firm asked a cross-section of the public (March 14-18) to evaluate the country’s Afghanistan foray, recalling that 158 Canadian Forces members died there.
                      • 53 per cent believe “these soldiers will be remembered as having died unnecessarily and in vain for little that was accomplished.”
                      • 47 per cent say the casualties will be “remembered as people who gave their lives for a necessary and worthwhile effort that accomplished a great deal for the people of Afghanistan.”
           Most pollsters’ questions frame the Afghan campaign as a “mission,” which likely serves to bias the responses in favour of military action by comparing it with a calling or moral obligation.
           Nonetheless, barely half of us feel good about our role in Afghanistan.
           “Thinking of the mission overall, from the military mission through to the training mission,” Harris/Decima asked, 52 per cent said it was “worthwhile for Canada,” 47 per cent “not worthwhile.” Only 8 per cent, however, called it “very worthwhile,” while 18 per cent said it was “not at all worthwhile.”
           The Harper government imposed sanctions on Russia, but Harper has not asked Canadians to make any sacrifices to stop Putin from helping himself to another slice of Ukraine. Harper’s sanctions are useless against Russia. As political tactics on the home front, however, sanctions work.

Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ ( and author of Public Opinion and Polling For Dummies, published by Wiley (2012)