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‘There’s a lot of tension in the nation right now’: Ipsos CEO Darrell Bricker on the stalled progress of younger Canadians

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Darrell Bricker, the global CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, about the Canadian public policy and political landscape, including the growing agitation of younger Canadians based on a sense of stalled middle-class progress.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined by Darrell Bricker, the global CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, a bestselling author and leading thinker, and commentator on politics and national affairs. I should say that I happen to think that Darrell is the country’s most interesting and thoughtful analyst when it comes to understanding Canada’s political and social trends.

Not only does he have some useful heuristics for thinking about our politics, but his extensive polling enables him to discern the big structural trends occurring within our society away from the day-to-day noise of partisan politics. I’m grateful to speak with him about some of these trends, including the growing agitation of younger Canadians and their sense of stalled progress. Darrell, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

DARELL BRICKER: Thanks for having me on, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: I mentioned that you have some useful heuristics for thinking and talking about Canadian politics, and I wanted to start there if that’s okay. One of your heuristics is that Canadian elections are determined by whether the prevailing issues cause suburban voters to side with urban or rural ones. Do you want to elaborate on this insight and give some examples of when and how it’s played out?

DARELL BRICKER: Yes, Sean. Typically, the analysis of Canadian politics since Confederation has always been that there’s one strategy that wins election campaigns, and that one strategy would be, to do as well as possible in the province of Quebec, and then whatever else that you can pick up in the province of Ontario should be enough to get you to a majority government or pretty competitive for a majority government. Both the old Progressive Conservative Party and the Liberal Party of Canada basically operated that strategy and took varying levels of success.

The Liberals through most of the 20th century really made that work for them, but there have been occasions in which Brian Mulroney, for example, winning the biggest majority in Canadian history, operated exactly the same strategy. Due to population change, what’s happened in Canada is that strategy is not necessarily the only strategy that works to form majority governments anymore. Now as we saw back in the 2011 election, Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party figured out a way to win a national majority without winning in the province of Quebec. They only won five seats.

How did they do that? Well, they swept the West. They swept a large part of rural Canada, with the exception of the province of Quebec. Most importantly what they did was they generated support among the fastest growing biggest part of the Canadian population which is people living in the suburbs of our major cities. What’s happened over the space of the last while is this new strategy is emerged, which really works probably better for the Conservative Party than it does for any other party, which is to combine the West and rural Canada with the major suburbs of the big cities in the country.

SEAN SPEER: It’s common, Darrell, for political pundits and commentators to talk about the importance of the so-called 416 and 905 which refers to the dense number of ridings in and around the city of Toronto. I’ve heard you make the case that this isn’t quite the right way to think about it anymore. The Greater Toronto Area as an economic, cultural, and political entity has expanded. What do you mean?

DARELL BRICKER: We used to separate for example Southwest Ontario. Well, is Kitchener-Waterloo really that different from the suburbs of the city of Toronto? Or if you take it further east when you get up to Pickering and you start moving towards Belleville and places like that, particularly places that have more of a university-type population, maybe we should start thinking of them as being in the orbit of the 416 and 905. I remember when I first started into this, Sean, back in the `80s, you would look at a riding like Mississauga as being partially a farming riding.

You wouldn’t look at it that way anymore. I think we’ve seen over the space of the last 30 years in particular this rapid expansion of people living in the car-commuting suburbs of the major cities. In fact, over 90 percent of the population growth in the country has been in those places over the last 20 to 30 years. We have a representation by population system that means where the people are is where the power is. What we’re starting to see as we go through every census, the number of ridings in those places starts to expand.

They’re voting more as a block, a series of blocs than they are voting as—like I said before, I used to look at some of the outskirts of Toronto as being rural ridings or the outskirts of Vancouver and that’s no longer the case.

SEAN SPEER: I recently spoke to Charley McMillan about the large majority governments that Brian Mulroney won in the 1980s. Are those wins still possible in Canada?

DARELL BRICKER: Stephen Harper pulled it off in 2011, Justin Trudeau certainly pulled it off in 2015. We’re stuck in a stalemate right now in Canadian politics, which probably has more to do with the leadership and characteristics of the party than it has to do with forces that would lead to a sweep one way or the other. That Canadians are fairly locked in right now I would say. One of the observations I make for journalists when they call me up and they say, “Oh, there’s been this fluctuation in political support for the parties.”

My observation is, “No, it hasn’t fluctuated since 2019.” It’s been pretty much in that very narrow band, which the Conservatives are slightly ahead or the Liberals are slightly ahead, the NDP not able to get over 20. It’s been locked in that pattern since just before the 2019 election and the SNC Lavalin scandal. Liberals haven’t been able to break out, and the Conservatives haven’t been able to break through, and the NDP seems stuck where it is.

It’s like the early 1960s between Diefenbaker and Pearson. It took a while, but at some point there’s a likelihood that somebody will break out.

SEAN SPEER: One group that would presumably be necessary for such a big win is eligible non-voters, which is a good segue into what’s going on with younger Canadians. Darrell, we spent some time together last year, and you made the case then that the group you thought that was the most anxious, angry, and possibly prone to political agitation was younger voters. Let me ask a two-part question: first, what was your point then, and second, a year later, how do you feel?

DARELL BRICKER: Oh, very much so. They’re the wild card in any election campaign. When you talk about turnout increasing, it’s usually because younger people show up. Either they’re voting—typically when you see turnout go up, it’s because people are voting for change. This is a really frustrated generation in so many different ways but the biggest one, I think, and sometimes it doesn’t get as much attention as I think it should get, which is this idea that you’re entitled to a middle-class life if you do everything right. These days, what’s happening is people seem to feel that they’re doing everything right, particularly in that younger group of the population, and the aspiration that they will be able to achieve what they should be entitled to is really very much in question.

Where it really starts is around the question of housing, particularly in the places where Canadians want to live, which is in the major cities or outside the major cities, in the major commuting areas. People don’t want to be that far away. We think, as a result of the pandemic, that what’s happened is Canadians are moving out to rural areas. The truth is that’s not what’s happened. What’s happened is they’ve moved into maybe further commutable distances from major cities but they’re still living in a fairly narrow band close to the U.S. border.

The other phenomenon that’s interesting is, what places have been losing population. It’s not just in rural areas, but downtowns and major cities are starting to decline as well. All of this obviously underscores the importance of car commuting suburbs in the country because they’re getting it not just from people moving there—new immigrants for example—or people going from rural smaller town places to closer to the city, but also the people in the downtown starting to scatter towards the suburbs as well. The power of the suburbs continues to increase.

SEAN SPEER: I will just say in parenthesis that the economist Mike Moffat has coined the phrase “drive until you qualify” to describe those, as you say, particularly young families, fleeing the cities and going as far as they have to in order to get approved for a mortgage.

You’ve made the case, Darrell, that the concern amongst this younger cohort isn’t merely about relative progress. They’re not just comparing their circumstances to others around them but to their own expectations. What were their expectations and how are they falling short?

DARELL BRICKER: This is the most educated, most literate generation that we’ve had in Canadian history in any way that you want to measure it. It’s very successful from the perspective of qualification. More qualified for what the economy needs than we’ve ever had. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be able to find those types of permanent opportunities that lead to that middle-class status that would allow them to even buy a house in the neighbourhood that they grew up in. That’s an extremely frustrating set of circumstances. They’re the first generation that’s really confronted that since the end of the Second World War.

It’ll be interesting to see how they decide to express that politically, but there’s a lot of tension in the nation right now. I would describe public opinion as being very brittle, very fragile. You were mentioning before if there could be somebody forming a potential breakout type of majority government. Yes. Somebody who can speak to these kinds of concerns, which by the way don’t just extend to the younger generation. They also extend into the millennial and just some of the younger Gen X generations who are going through very similar kinds of things. If somebody can appeal to that, they’ve got a ready audience of voters.

SEAN SPEER: Just on your point, Darrell about this younger generation doing everything it was told and expecting that kind of middle-class progress, I worked on a project last year for the Cardus Institute on Canada’s working class. We defined working class by people in occupations that typically don’t require post-secondary credentials. One of the striking things we discovered in our research was more than half of Canadians working in working-class jobs actually have post-secondary qualifications. That is to say, they are overeducated for the types of jobs that they’re currently holding, which speaks, as you say, to that sense of disappointment for those who’ve played by the rules and done everything that was expected of them.

Let’s stay on the subject of housing. There’s been a lot of debate in policy circles about how to achieve greater densification which at least in part means more high-rise condos. Your research tells us that young people don’t view high-rise condos as a sign of progress. They’ve been socialized to view progress as an attached home with a backyard. Do you want to discuss this disconnect?

DARELL BRICKER: Well, the disconnect is that you’ve got a bunch of reporters at major national newspapers who live in condos downtown combined with a bunch of university professors who do the same thing, who basically see their life as the life that everybody should aspire to. The answer to that question is no. [chuckles] Most people, particularly when they start families, do not want to live in a condo downtown. What this is, is people trying to create a supply that will hopefully at some point be in demand, but it’s not what’s in demand. What’s in demand is people living in their own patch in a car-commuting suburb.

Yes, there are always going to be people who want to live downtown for that type of lifestyle, but that’s not what the demography is showing about what’s going on. They go to a place like Amsterdam and they say, “I was in Amsterdam last week. That’s the way everybody in this country wants to live.” It’s like, no, they don’t actually. They really don’t. You’re talking about a major cultural change in the way that people look at their middle-class success, and having a very nice flat downtown is something that maybe somebody who doesn’t have any kids might want or somebody who’s in a different type of a life situation than somebody who’s a middle-class person who’s going to aspire to raise a family.

Those people are all moving out of the city, or a significant number are. That’s one of the things that Mike Moffatt’s research shows. When you get to the position where you want to raise a family, you’re not thinking about living in a condo. One of the problems that we’re going to have with the pandemic, of course, is that people now see another option. They see that they don’t necessarily have to live downtown. That they can work a couple of days a week in the city, but they can work maybe three days a week or two days a week living outside of the city, which is plugging into what Mike’s talking about, which is this idea you commute till you can qualify or you move out till you can qualify where you can now move out further. The effect that that’s going to have on downtowns in this country, very few people are talking about.

There was a story in The Globe this morning, for example, about the fact that the average downtown office vacancy rate is about 20 percent, which is double what it was prior to the pandemic. You say, “How are we going to maintain the downtowns of these cities?” You’ve got all these people walking around talking about the 15-minute city and the densification and all the rest of it. Canadians are saying, “Bye. See ya,” and they’re moving.

Every time you get a story about something wrong on the TTC or the transit system in Vancouver or the transit system in Calgary or Montreal, people start seeing decaying downtowns. It’s going to get even worse. Our city councils need to wake up to what it is that people are actually demanding and maybe expand the voices that you listen to beyond the local urban affairs faculty at a university because quite frankly, they’re not getting it, and start actually looking at what people want and how the demography on all of this breaks down because they’re telling you every day by what their actions are.

SEAN SPEER: If I can stay on that point, Darrell, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the possible political consequences of some of those post-pandemic changes that you’re talking about. In a world in which urban professionals are leaving Toronto and moving to, say, Cobourg, what do you think the political ramifications may be? Will we see Conservative ridings in and around the city of Toronto shift to the Left as those populations bring their political preferences with them, or will those communities effectively change the political preferences of their new inhabitants?

DARELL BRICKER: That’s a really interesting question. If you look at the past as prologue, what tends to happen is that the downtown sensibilities tend to find a way to move out. We were talking about Mississauga before. Mississauga never used to vote Liberal. They now vote Liberal pretty overwhelmingly, or NDP where Jagmeet Singh is from. That never was the case before.

Yes, there’s going to be a push-out into the newer suburbs in which that’s the case, but then you see what also happens is when people leave downtown and they move to a place like say further part-commuting suburbs, what tends to happen is the people move there. What we’ve seen is that, actually, the place changes them. They develop the same values as the people who are living around them. This even is new Canadians who do the same kind of thing, which is what makes the 905, we’ll just use Toronto as the example, so volatile. They can vote one way or the other. It’s really in flux.

Downtown is always going to be orange or red in most major cities, but those commuting suburbs, they’re the ones that tend to flip.

SEAN SPEER: Based on our conversation, are you worried at all about intergenerational conflict emerging in our politics? How do we avoid a political climate that pits millennials and Gen Zers against their parents and grandparents?

DARELL BRICKER: Well, I think the first thing, Sean, we have to wake up to is the dramatic changes that are happening in the Canadian population that almost nobody’s clocked. You read the odd story and newspaper about it, or maybe an academic might publish something, or there’s maybe a story from another country that raises the same kind of issue in Canada, but we don’t really talk that much about demographic change. The truth that’s happened in this country over the space of the last 20 years is that our fertility rate has collapsed, we’re down to 1.4, which is basically not that far off from Japan.

Our population, the median age is 41, where the entire baby boom of this country is all going to be 65 years of age or older in 2030. Who’s talking about that? Because are the demographic realities of what we’re dealing with here. We’ve spent an awful lot of time talking about young people in this conversation. Now, well, there are a lot more old people, [chuckles] and most of the growth in the Canadian population, almost all of it comes from just two sources. That’s new people moving to the country.

We’re bringing in more than 1 percent of our population now every year through immigration, but also people not dying as fast as they used to. We stopped pretty much having kids, but we still have a conversation in this country and in politics, what we’re dealing with is a population that looks like 1960 instead of looking like 2030. The 2030 public policy demands are going to be different than the ones that we experienced back in 1960, for example. The reason is because we’re going to be dealing with a lot of people who are in that period of life in which they’re going to be less consumers, they’re going to be more people who are going to be using health-care services, accessing pensions, and that kind of thing.

A very expensive population that’s not going to be consumptive or productive. That’s what we’re going to really be facing. Where the intergenerational pressure comes from, Sean is who’s going to pay for all of this? If you look at other countries that are going through this, like Italy, Spain, Japan, China, now one of the lower birth rates in the world, how are they going to deal with it all? This is the biggest issue that nobody’s talking about. It’s going to have a profound effect on the world between today and 2050 and even after that. 

But in Canada, it’s because we gloss it over with immigration, we’re not really talking about what’s going on, and what’s really happening is we’re having a rapidly aging population that’s increasingly moving to the suburbs and increasingly moving West in the country. Yes, Nova Scotia picked up a little bit over the last little while, Halifax has grown quite significantly, but from a low base [chuckles] from in a direction in which they were previously showing very stable and potentially shrinking populations. But what we’ve got to deal with is this shape of the Canadian population going forward, and we don’t really see a lot of people talking about it.

SEAN SPEER: Just a ton of insight there, Darrell. I would just say in parenthesis for listeners interested in the subject of Canada’s fertility rate, we had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with a sociologist and demographer, Lyman Stone, on his work discerning Canadians’ desired fertility, their intentions, and their actual outcomes. As Darrell says, at 1.4 children per woman, we’re putting ourselves on a pretty extraordinary, almost historic fertility course.

DARELL BRICKER: It is historic. It’s never been this low. Keep in mind that that 1.4 represents women I think up to the age of about 45. If you look at the younger cohorts, the number is even lower. There’s this anticipation that there’s all this pent-up demand for people to have kids, and we’re going to see this kind of, what they call population momentum type baby boom. No, it’s not going to happen. You know why we know that? Because it’s not happening anywhere.

Yes, this is a big issue, and we’re only starting to just taste the effects of it, but as we get closer to 2030, you’re going to be seeing it a lot more. What I have to remind people, Sean, all the time is we’re not talking about a generation. We’re talking about seven years. It’s happening right now.

SEAN SPEER: Well said. If I can’t shift the conversation Darrell to politics, I think I alluded earlier in the conversation that Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives seem to be performing well with younger Canadians in large part as an expression of this anxiety and frustration. Do you think that support is durable? How can the Conservatives get these younger Canadians to turn out?

DARELL BRICKER: They seem to be doing a little better, but I wouldn’t say a ton better. The NDP and Liberals are still pretty popular. If you see the Conservatives doing better against the Liberals, it’s also because the NDP does well among younger people as well, so the vote splitting is more profound. For example, the NDP for older Canadians is not really a viable option, but for younger Canadians, it definitely is.

Particularly, younger women. I wouldn’t say that it’s because Pierre Poilievre is doing great among younger Canadians. I would say that the vote splits are more profound.

SEAN SPEER: If I can follow up on that question, there’s some debate, Darrell in conservative circles about whether Conservatives ought to lean into, for lack of a better term, an anti-woke politics. Do you want to talk a bit about that? What are the upsides and what are the risks of Conservatives challenging in a more full-throated way that is the rise of identity politics that we’ve seen in some parts of the Left?

DARELL BRICKER: Just as there’s a group of very vocal minority group on the Left side that is totally encapsulated and captured by this kind of conversation, there is on the Right too, but they’re not the groups that are going to win elections. This next election is going to be won, as most of the Canadian elections are won, based on people feeling that they’ve got some confidence in the economic policies that you’re going to bring to the table. What you’re seeing these days in terms of the way Canadians are thinking about things is they went through the pandemic and they became very focused on the health of their households. What was going on with their own families? I know we were just talking about you and your kids and sinus infections and everything else. I’m quarantined right now for COVID.

Very concerned about what’s going on in their houses, it’s going from health to wealth, where people are really concerned about that. What you’ve seen is the displacement of the pandemic is an important issue by inflation, almost one-for-one. What real people call inflation is the cost of living. That’s what we’re really, really focused on. Everything from interest rates to the cost of housing and all the rest of it. Woke politics is an interesting discussion for maybe college campus clubs or campus party clubs and for people who are really interested in these issues.

Most of the Canadian population is interested in what I just mentioned. Sure, you can talk a little bit about that. The woke Left has gone too far for a lot of Canadians and maybe a bit of pushback on that’s ok, but if that’s your campaign it’s a dialogue of the deaf. If you really want to connect with Canadians, you’ve got to figure out a way to plug into what people in the 905 and the suburban areas area codes around the city of Montreal, around Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, even Atlantic Canada, and particularly places like British Columbia, which by the way in terms of politics looks an awful lot like Ontario.

You’ve got to plug into what’s important in the day-to-day lives of those folks, and that’s what counts. One issue that comes across as a bit of a woke issue that isn’t is law and order. That’s an issue that really works well for conservatives. I would say it’s a sleeper issue as we move into this next election campaign. The reason for that is the woke Left always wants to talk about root causes. It’s all you ever hear.

People who are more inclined to vote Conservative or people who are more spooked by these types of issues want to talk about doing something. Doing something against root causes. That’s a good debate, that’s a debate that Stephen Harper won, and it’s a debate that Pierre Poilievre could win. Watch for that issue emerging as we get through this next election campaign.

SEAN SPEER: One final question about the Conservatives and then we’ll turn to the Liberals before we wrap up. It’s a common view in a lot of political commentaries, Darrell, that climate change is a threshold issue. That is to say, parties have to be able to meet a threshold of credibility on the environment before people will listen to the rest of their programme. Two-part question: one, do you agree with that characterization, and two, what do Conservatives have to do to prove to swing voters that they’re credible on the environment and climate change?

DARELL BRICKER: Canadians are among the most concerned about climate change anywhere in the world. If you look at the 30 countries that we survey every month on global advisor, which is a survey that we do on public policy issues around the world, you’ll find that Canadians rank in the top 5 out of the 30 countries in terms of the level of concern. Climate change, at a global level, usually ranks on the list of I think of 18 issues that we ask, somewhere between 8 and 10 on any survey that we do. It’s not a high-priority issue. It’s not one that’s really moved to the course of the pandemic.

It stayed pretty much as it is. For Canadians, with the exception of the 2019 election campaign, it’s been there too. Usually somewhere between four, five, six, seven, depending on what’s going on in the news. Here’s climate change. Climate change is what everybody agrees to and then where it all goes into a very difficult debate. Here’s what everybody agrees to. Is it a problem? Yes. Is it the most urgent problem? I’m not sure. Particularly when you look at the pandemic, you look at inflation, look at other issues that people are dealing with, cost of living, I’m not so sure.

Do you think human beings caused it? Yes, we do. Canadians believe that that’s the case. Do you believe somebody should do something about it? Absolutely. Somebody should do something about it. Who should do something about it? The government. Are you willing to pay more, do more, act more or differently, do anything differently? No. I’m not willing to actually do anything. What we have is what we’ll call in research a say-do gap.

People will say things that something should be done, but when you ask them to do something, they’re not really sure. The federal Liberal government came up with the one thing that they could come up with which was the carbon tax. They made the climate change issue all about the carbon tax. Well somebody was going to do something, but the public didn’t necessarily think it was them that was going to be paying the carbon tax.

This is the opportunity for the Conservatives. When they raise questions about the carbon tax, how it actually works, how it affects families, and how it affects the cost of living, unlike in 2019, in this environment, people are nervous about that kind of thing. They really don’t understand this idea that they’re going to tax you and then they’re going to give you a cheque back and then what? It just seems odd. Particularly in an environment these days when the public is not feeling the government can really accomplish very much.

This idea that we’ve been hearing a lot, people have been writing a lot about, Canada’s broken. It’s not that they think Canada’s broken. Canadians don’t think that. What they actually think is government is broken, institutions are broken. I’m not going to point out any particular government, but things that used to seem to be easy, seem to be really hard. “I have to trust them to do this correctly and then I’m going to be compensated appropriately? That’s going to be revenue neutral, all the rest of it?” That requires a lot of trust in government to get away with that.

I think that there’s some pretty fertile ground for Pierre Poilievre to say, “Look, I’m not going to deny that the climate’s changing. I’m not going to say human beings aren’t responsible for it,” because if he starts talking about that, bad place to be but the way that we’re dealing with this is wrong. That’s a good conversation.

SEAN SPEER: We’ve talked already about the Conservative’s performance with younger voters. I want to ask about the Liberals’ performance with older voters. They’ve come to supplant the Conservatives as the leading party amongst Canadians aged 65 and older. What do you attribute that to? Is it increased public spending or is it a last gasp of Trudeaumania or something else?

DARELL BRICKER: Things like for example, public services like health care and pensions, when you ask the public which party you think would do the better job of protecting these things, the Liberals tend to do pretty well. When you’re talking about that older group, what are they concerned about? Well, their number one issue isn’t climate change it’s health care. Their number one issue isn’t even inflation, it’s health care. I think that they’re feeling a little anxious and nervous about the Conservative party in particular and what it might do on health care, and they want to know that it’s going to be preserved.

But you could take that and extend it to other types of services like pensions for example, and things that older Canadians rely on. The Liberals seem to be more committed to that right now and they’re not really sure about the Conservatives. This is obviously a blank for the Conservatives to fill in prior to the election campaign, but if the Liberals run an election campaign in which they’re going to say something about the Conservatives threatening the delivery of public health care or threatening pensions or making the lives of older Canadians harder, that’s pretty fertile ground for them too.

SEAN SPEER: That’s interesting. One of the challenges that the prime minister and his party face, of course, is that whenever we have a subsequent election, they’ll have been in power for a long time. How do they keep themselves looking fresh and future-oriented after years of the nicks and cuts and bruises that time in office can cause?

DARELL BRICKER: The answer to that question Sean, is they don’t. All they can do is make the other side look like a bigger risk. That’s all they can do. Quite frankly, that’s the only campaign they’ve run since 2019. Prior to 2015, it was the campaign they tried to run against Stephen Harper in 2004, 2006, and 2008. 2011 was a bit of a different deal but that’s the campaign that they run. The campaign that they run is very simple. Everybody listening, you can take out your notepad. This is the Liberal campaign.

The Liberal campaign is demonize the Conservatives to scare NDP voters. That’s the campaign. They’re going to do it with a level of vigor because they need to, in the next election campaign. If Justin Trudeau hangs around, that’s an open question but even if he doesn’t hang around they’ll still going to run that campaign because they have to make the Conservatives look scary because if they don’t make the Conservatives look scary, then that means progressives start looking at the NDP as a possible option because they’re not necessarily happy with the Liberal Party right now either, start looking at the NDP as a potential option. If the NDP starts moving up into the low to mid-20s, the Liberals are sunk.

SEAN SPEER: Final question: a bit of an oddball one. In all of your years of polling, what’s one result that surprises you and may surprise our listeners?

DARELL BRICKER: I’m surprised every time. I have to be honest with you I have one of the worst gut instincts of anybody out there. By the way, I think that’s pretty realistic for most people. I think people like us who live in this world of ideas and we’re swimming in data, and we’re thinking about this stuff all the time, think that people think the way that we think and the answer to that question is the average person doesn’t. They’re not consumed about the issues that columnists in The Globe and Mail or the National Post or the Sun are consumed about or people who are talking on Power and Politics. That’s a very, very small audience.

The thing that I always have to remind myself is that you need to look at what real Canadians care about, and that means standing back, getting rid of your own predispositions and your own prejudices in your own way of thinking about the world, and just go back to the basic principles of good social science. I have a quote that you can’t see, it’s here on my bookcase and in my office at home, and it’s a quote from somebody named Thomas Huxley. It was actually Aldous Huxley’s, I think, grandfather or father who wrote Brave New World, and it was “The great tragedy of science is the killing of a beautiful hypothesis with an ugly fact.”

What I’m trying to do all the time is do exactly that, listen to all those hypotheses, and then look at the data. I’m often surprised by things that I think Canadians will think are great ideas that don’t end up being great ideas. Yes, the horse race polling is all very interesting, everybody’s interested in how all of that works, but digging into the kinds of things that we’re talking about Sean today on this podcast and digging deeper into what are the forces that are driving all of these things, those are the things that are interesting, and those are the things that I watch the most closely.

Actually, the stuff that I watch a lot more these days than I used to watch is demography. Public opinion can move back and forth based on what’s going on in the news. The basic demographic facts of what’s happening in a population—Auguste Comte said, “Demography is destiny,” and everybody kind of booed him. The truth is he was more right than we think, and we’re about to live through. Every time I look at demographic data, that’s when I tend to find the most surprises because we have all of these assumptions about how the population is structured that are absolutely not true at all.

SEAN SPEER: Well, I started this conversation by calling you the most interesting and thoughtful analyst on Canadian public policy culture, politics, and so on, and this conversation has only proved that out. Darrell Bricker, Global CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.