Royal Renaming Shows Harper’s Small-Ball Savvy

Posted Thursday, September 01, 2011

  • IMG Royal Renaming

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By Bruce Anderson

The decision by the Harper government to re-name the Canadian Forces seemed to come out of nowhere, stir a twitch of controversy and then disappear as a story.

But it was a potentially provocative decision by the government and worthy of a bit more analysis of the politics that surround it. The first question is why, or more particularly, why now?

Without being privy to any of the internal background within government policy circles, it’s hard to imagine this decision would have been taken now had our royal visitors this summer been Prince Charles and Camilla, or even the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge did a lot to freshen the image of the monarchy. So much so that the idea of investing billions in a more modern defence force and at the same time reaching back several decades to rename it doesn¹t seem as incongruous to most voters as it might have.

So how did the decision land? A Harris/Decima poll completed only days after the move was announced, showed it was a net positive for the Conservatives. I'm talking a solid double, not a home run, but still it belongs on the list of things the Conservatives have done to help rather than hurt themselves with voters. Here’s what the poll reveals:

Across Canada, 56% agree with the move. Only 11% are strongly opposed, which means that the potential for critics of this decision to whip up a backlash is small. At the other end of the scale, 18% strongly support the decision. In other words the government found a pretty low-cost way to make almost one in five voters feel pretty good.

It’s not surprising this decision is popular with Conservative voters, who approve on a 72-20% margin. More interesting is that this is not an idea that works only with older voters: younger people support this decision in virtually equal numbers.

While there’s predictably more pushback in Quebec, still 41% of voters in that province like the decision. That's easily twice as many as have been thinking about voting Conservative.

Roughly half of Liberal and NDP voters support the move. For leaders of those parties, it puts fighting this decision squarely in the pile of ideas labeled: “Worth the trouble?”

I'm not suggesting that public support for this move is really a Will and Kate effect, even if their headline-making tour may have affected the timing. Instead my read is that voters see this more as a nod to the respected history of the Canadian military, rather than somehow surrendering a bit of sovereignty. Folks also in my experience accept that military organizations must cherish a sense of their history to recruit, retain, motivate and perform at their best.

As a political strategy, some might think of this move as “small ball.” But at the front end of a four-year run, with a big deficit to tame, who's to say small ball is bad strategy.