At election time senior citizens are worth more than the rest of us.
And that's why Canadians will go to the polls for the third time in five years over the Conservatives' failure in Tuesday's budget to satisfy an NDP demand to enrich benefits for the elderly.
The Guaranteed Income Supplement may not resonate with the masses, but this election won't be about the masses. It will be a battle for segments of the population that can be effectively targeted. For all three national parties, wooing the seniors vote is a win-or-lose-the-election priority.
By targeting doctors for rural areas, new jails and some improvements to the GIS, the Conservatives feel they've done enough to appeal to older voters. By making a stand on the GIS and a home-heating tax credit, the NDP have made their own poverty-reduction agenda clear. And since Michael Ignatieff became leader, the Liberals have targeted seniors' priorities early and often, proposing that family members caring for an ailing relative receive the equivalent of unemployment insurance.
About 75 per cent of Canadians over 65 are reliable voters, meaning they voted in the last federal, provincial and municipal elections, according to the Statistics Canada General Social Survey (and nearly 90 per cent vote in federal elections). Among 25- to 44-year-olds, the proportion of reliable voters is closer to 45 per cent. Targeting older voters is clearly an efficient way to campaign.
And as political scientist Christian Leuprecht points out, rural ridings, which are often only half or one-third the size of urban ridings, also tend to be older. That makes seniors' votes even more significant in areas such as Atlantic Canada, rural Quebec and Northern Ontario, where several races will have a significant impact on the election. Of the ridings identified by the political website ThreeHundredEight.com as Conservative targets, Sault Ste. Marie, Welland, Kingston and the Islands, Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, Vancouver South, Burnaby-Douglas and Edmonton-Strathcona all have senior populations that exceed the Canadian average.
"In the demographically fragmented space that Canada is becoming … you need specific strategies to attract these specific segments of voters," Prof. Leuprecht said. "One of the liabilities the Conservatives have is they're inherently a party that favours a smaller state. This makes them vulnerable to populations that rely on state interventions. Those tend to be older populations, who rely more on state services such as health care, and those in rural areas who need government to provide economic opportunity and infrastructure."
The Conservative effort to target ridings described in a party memo as "very ethnic" is by now well known. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been aggressively courting immigrant voters concentrated around the edges of Toronto and Vancouver. But the Conservatives admit they're still losing that fight to the Liberal Party.
Seniors may prove more fertile ground. The latest Nanos poll shows the Conservatives at 42 per cent, the Liberals at 29 per cent and the NDP at 19 per cent among the over-60s. That's slightly better than the Conservatives' 39-per-cent support overall.
As the campaign kicks into gear, party strategies will focus on courting, and bringing out, the senior-citizen vote.
"A big part of my vote is making sure I get my seniors out," said Judy Sgro, seniors critic for the Liberal Party. Like other candidates, she and volunteer canvassers in her Toronto-area riding talk to seniors at the door, try to divine their voting intention, and if it's favourable, will call on election day, offering to drive older voters to the polls if needed.
The NDP, meanwhile, is determined the make itself known as the party that cares about older voters in need. The New Democrats decided to defeat the Conservatives largely over their refusal to increase funding by $700-million for the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which the party contends would lift 250,000 low-income seniors above the poverty line.
"We've heard it, year after year on the doorstep," said MP Chris Charlton, the NDP's critic on seniors' issues. "Seniors who'd worked hard all their lives, who'd played by the rules, now everywhere they're turning, every bill they're paying, they're working more and paying less."
Conservative Seniors Minister Julian Fantino believes the opposition parties are using seniors as "pawns in a political arena."
His party has its own agenda for winning the seniors vote. The budget promises $300-million to the GIS, which Mr. Fantino says is the most a fiscally responsible federal government can afford, and offers its own tax credit for caregivers of infirm family members.
Demographer David Foot said although there's a perception that older people tend to be small-c conservative, it's a label that applies to some, not all.
"The Canadian voter tends to be all over the map," Prof. Foot said. "Their voting patterns aren't predictable by age, as we so often assume."
Allan Froom, an 80-year-old retired teacher and insurance investigator, is one of the prized seniors being courted by the various political parties. Mr. Froom lives in Thornhill, a Toronto riding that went Conservative in the last election. He has been a Liberal-Conservative swing voter all his life. He says the environment is the most important issue in his view, so he's only leaning Conservative at this point.
"Quite frankly I wish there wasn't an election, but there's going to be one anyway, whether we need it or not," Mr. Froom said. "I'm probably going to vote for Harper, but I'm not sure about it."
With a report from Stephanie Chambers
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