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Gerry Nicholls

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Why Harper is the Teflon Robot

Posted: 03/13/2012 8:24 am

A lot of people expected the so-called "robocall scandal" to inflict some serious damage to the Conservative government's standing in the polls.

As NDP MP Pat Martin put it, "This is the kind of thing that brings governments down."

And it's easy to see why Martin and others might hold this view. After all, the media gave the scandal front-page treatment for weeks. Day after day, it seemed new allegations surfaced suggesting somebody associated with the Conservative party may have used fraudulent phone calls to misdirect and annoy voters.

Yet, despite all that negative coverage recent public opinion polls suggest the scandal has had little or no impact on the Conservative party's popularity: 37 per cent of Canadians polled said they would still vote for the Tories if an election occurred tomorrow -- unchanged since a poll taken last November.

So what happened? Why have the Tories emerged from all the bad press seemingly unscathed?

Well, the answer is pretty simple: Canada is a land of two nations.

And no, I am not talking about English and French.

I am talking about two other nations: the one I call "Political Junkie Land," and the other "Regular Canadian Land."

And even though these two nations co-exist in the same country they actually have very little in common.

Political Junkie Land, for instance, is populated with party partisans, political hacks, journalists, activists, and politicians.

It's a land where politics is the national sport. Political Junkie Landers love to discuss and debate policy and political process; they are fascinated with the "politics of politics;" for fun they read political opinion polls and watch public affairs programs. And they love to passionately debate each other over the minutest of political issues.

Regular Canadian Land, on the other hand, is a nation that's composed of average non-ideological, non-partisan Canadians. And they care about stuff that affects their daily lives.

They worry about paying for their kids' education; they are concerned about keeping their jobs and paying for their mortgages. They are not concerned with the inner workings of public policy and politics. They care more about NHL standings than they do about standings of political opinion polls.

Yet Political Junkie Landers erroneously believe that what matters to them must also matter to the residents of Regular Canadian Land.

And this brings us back to the "robocall" scandal.

As is to be expected this scandal is an extremely hot topic in Political Junkie Land. Hence all the resultant media coverage. And naturally the Political Junkie Landers assume other Canadians share their passion.

But do regular Canadians care about this stuff?

Answer: They don't.

In fact, all this sensationalized scandal news coverage just reminds them of why they tune out politics in the first place. They see it as a nasty business and they regard politicians in general as a shady lot.

As prominent Canadian pollster Nik Nanos put it, "I would expect that most people believe that all the parties engage in a lot of these unsavoury activities in one way or another. A lot of this has to do with the level of cynicism that exists out there. ... It doesn't move the numbers as much."

And that's why the robocall scandal has not hurt the Tories.

This not to say it has had zero impact.

Voters who hate the Conservatives now hate them even more; voters who like the Conservatives are rallying to their defence.

But the rest of the population cares more about the price of gas.

And this is why the Liberals and NDP had better think again if they are planning to make the robocall scandal the centerpiece of their anti-Conservative strategy.

It just won't work.

Indeed, if the next federal election features the Tories talking about the economy and the Opposition talking about robocalls, Prime Minister Harper will almost certainly win another majority.

And this will trigger more heated political debate in the nation of Political Junkie Land, a debate which the Regular Canadian Landers will, needless to say, completely ignore.

(A version of this article originally appeared in The Hill Times.)