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The ONW Salon: Is the Liberal government's slumping popularity a serious problem for the party? 

The latest Nanos/Institute for Research on Public Policy poll says the percentage of people who think the Liberals are doing a bad job has jumped to 39%, while the percentage who think they are doing a "good job" or "somewhat good job" is at 37% - a major drop from the 60% the Liberals earned just after they were elected in 2015.  We asked Richard Mahoney, Will Stewart and Tom Parkin to delve into what the numbers really mean.


Tom Parkin:

In the last few days, Nik Nanos’ polling has reported the same thing Angus Reid saw in December—Justin Trudeau is now a net unpopular Prime Minister. Nanos found 39% of Canadians say Trudeau is doing a bad job, while 37% say he’s doing a good job. Angus Reid also found that more Canadians (49%) disapprove than approve (46%) of the job being done by him. Perhaps more worrying, Angus Reid found only 32% said a change in government is not needed.

But until recently, party horse-race polling hasn’t shown much change from the 2015 election result. That might be about to change.

The Nanos release shows the Liberals at 37%, which is toward the bottom end of the 35% to 43% range they’ve occupied for the past year. The NDP, at 20%, is at the top of its 12-month range of 14 to 20%. And the Conservatives, at 34%, are also at the top of their 12-month range of 28 to 34%.

Of course we can’t know that party horse race numbers are about to break out of established ranges. But with Trudeau’s unpopularity gaining and the Opposition parties at the top of their ranges, it is certainly something to watch. And—if you’re a Liberal—to worry about.

The problem for the Liberals has two factors. First, they are in their third year and have yet to make any signature success. Lots of disappointments, broken promises, apologies, ethical problems—but no signature success.

Second, the economy is weakening. Trudeau and Morneau will tell anyone who will listen that the economy is wonderful and everyone is doing well. Maybe that’s true in the world where the stock market is hitting records, real estate has boomed and CEO pay has skyrocketed. But in the real world, recent research from UBC economist Kevin Milligan showed that in BC and Ontario, the median wage in 2015 was lower than 1976.

Canadians—helped by a decade of ultra-low interest rates—have made up for wage stagnation by becoming the most indebted households in the OECD, holding $2.11 trillion in mortgage, tuition, car and other credit. Now, as the Bank of Canada hikes interest rates, higher credit repayment costs will deduct from consumer spending—and remember, one person’s spending is another person’s income. So, no surprise, Canada’s GDP growth is expected to fall in 2018 and fall more in 2019.

Now combine these two factors. With no signature success after three years, why would Canadians feel confident in Justin Trudeau’s ability to help them succeed through a weakening economy?


Will Stewart:

The great untold story here is the commentary Tom makes at the end of his remarks. The Liberals have spent spent spent, despite promises to the contrary, during good times. They have used many of the tools governments typically use in bad times, which means there is nothing left to deal with the economic uncertainty that is coming.

This could make further dents in their approvals, or the weakening economy could give them excuses for their poor performance going forward.

Like my fellow panellists, I have been a senior member of many campaign teams and governments. I have learned hard lessons of celebrating or bemoaning the latest and greatest polling numbers that are breathlessly issued by firms and media outlets during mandates and during writ periods alike. Those lessons have taught me that putting too much emphasis on the poll of the day is emotionally exhausting and counter-productive. Like a Yo-Yo they predictably go up and down on a regular basis.

What is important about polling, especially of political parties and leaders, is the trend over time. Does the Yo-Yo get stuck at the bottom or top of the endless cycle? Trends are the clear determining factor, as is consistency of the poll across different methodologies and firms. Outlier, or "rogue" polls, are seldom accurate. There are just too many professional firms in Canada for one to have a vastly different result than others and be accurate.

While I am sure that my friends in the Conservative Party of Canada are pleased with the indications of a few polling firms that the Liberal support has come down a few points, they also know full well (I hope) that their work is not close to being done. Building on my points above, however, they should be happy with the trend.

What we see now in the poll results should not come as a surprise to the Liberal party. Despite what talking heads and government representatives say in newspapers, on the Internet and on TV, the end of 2017 was not good for the governing party. We have discussed the many missteps of the Prime Minister and his cabinet here many times.

While those on the centre left in the Liberal party espouse the virtues of the infallible Trudeau, realists see that multiple ethics violations, failures on TPP and China free trade, questionable meetings and payouts with those tied to Canada's most famous terrorist family, and a litany of other problems have started to take their toll on the government's popularity numbers.

So, the question for the Liberals is how do they reverse the trend, not how to they spin the recent bad polls.


Richard Mahoney:

Politicians, of any stripes, are well advised not to talk too much about polling results. This reminds me of the legendary quote by John Diefenbaker, when he was asked to comment on what I assume were weak public opinion numbers for him and his party in his day: "Polls are for dogs!"

That said, I don't think anyone would be surprised that just past the mid-point in the term, the gap between the parties is tightening. This certainly happened to all of Mr. Trudeau's predecessors. For example, in the lead up to the 2011 election, the one where Stephen Harper won a smashing majority and relegated the Michael Ignatieff led Liberals to the worst result since Confederation (!), polls showed Harper and Ignatieff neck and neck. Some showed Ignatieff in the lead, even.

Secondly, the Trudeau government has had to deal with some challenging issues: the Ethics Commissioner's report over his 2016 Christmas vacation, the controversy around changes to tax laws that prevent business owners from splitting income with family members who do not work in the business, putting a price on carbon, enhancing the Canada Pension Plan (a great achievement that will mean more for Canadians in their retirement but one that will also mean that they pay more into the plan now to get that increase), the challenges around Donald Trump and NAFTA, and so on. So it is normal that we see some narrowing at this point.

What that might mean for an election in 2019 is hard to say. But I know this: Prime Minister Trudeau and his team expect that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will compete vigorously to try to win the next election, and to keep their own jobs. Politics is a rough sport, and, if either of them falters, they might meet the same fate as their predecessors. In Tom Mulcair's case, the NDP were so bitterly disappointed by the defeat to Justin Trudeau, they showed Mulcair the door after only one election.  In the past, they might have been expected to give the leader more than one chance to win.

So, while the Trudeau government will need to be mindful of the challenges around them, I don't think anyone should be surprised that politics is competitive in Canada. It usually is!


Tom Parkin:

Thinking about the social democrats now, what is important is to create a narrative that explains the challenges Canada is facing. These challenges are mostly economic, but in other areas, too. What is important for potential NDP voters is that they have a common understanding of where we are at, which prepares them for a common understanding of what we need to do—that is, a platform.

Knowing where the economic trend is going allows the Opposition MPs to start thinking about the issues Canadians will want addressed in 2019. And, critically, it will allow the NDP to create contrasts with the rather uninspiring record of the Liberals.

I think what both the Nanos and Reid polls are telling us is that there is an opportunity for an Opposition to make gains—but no one has sealed the deal with those who are open to switching.

In my mind the time is now for the NDP to start really puzzling though its economic plan and creating the narrative context that will support it. If the NDP has some of these thoughts in place by spring, I think it will be well positioned. A year of communications—from Fall 2018 to Fall 2019—is something Jagmeet Singh will excel at and his natural connection to people will really shine.


Will Stewart:

Evidence suggests that the Liberals saw this declining polling trend in advance. The brains in the PMO surely have seen this coming.

They have put the PM out on the road again in his "Town Hall Meetings." An environment where the PM thrives with high-level, policy light replies to questions from Canadians. Because Canadians are not investigative journalists or Opposition parties with research budgets, every question is a predictable recasting of issues already raised in Ottawa, which gives the PM the opportunity to restate tired talking points rather than face real scrutiny under the bright lights in the House of Commons. He surely must hold a record for fewest questions fielded by a Prime Minister in Question Period, seeing as he only attends once a week for a few months a year.

This is all part of the Liberal strategy however. Why face difficult questions in the House when you can face easy questions in a "Town Hall"?

Despite the projection of sunny ways in the last few weeks, the Liberals know they have a public opinion problem. The poll released earlier this week shows that the Conservatives are within the margin of error of the Liberals; a place they have not been since the last election.

The Conservatives, however, have to ask themselves why. The answer is painful for them. It is a Liberal decline, not a CPC surge.

This makes victory for Scheer dependent on future blunders (which I am not betting against) but surely at some point the CPC will further define themselves and the Leader. If that resonates, against more Liberal follies, then there will be significant difficulties for the governing party.

The more important underlying issue for the Liberals than the numbers is when the poll was taken. I noticed that the dates the survey was fielded to be December 27-29—that time between holidays after the big family dinners when people gather to eat, drink, and chat about current affairs. It is interesting that this period in time shows such a decline for the party.

Some may suggest that the poll is an outlier because of the time. A fair argument. But I ask the readers and fellow panellists to cast their minds back to the 2006 campaign that spanned the Christmas holidays in the Martin/Harper race, which the Conservatives ultimately won. It was the time between the holidays at the end of December that saw the radical shift in polling numbers as families gathered to discuss the election. It was all over for the Liberals by New Years 2006/2007. I think it is too early to tell at this point, but the comparison is interesting.

The other interesting take away for me was buried in the Nanos Power Index Poll released Tuesday. A second poll, confirming the trend, has very difficult news for the NDP as well. While the Conservatives have a sharp uptick in the number of people who would consider voting Conservative, the NDP see a big drop in those willing to indicate that they would consider voting for them to their second lowest point on that metric since 2013. This is very bad news for the NDP as they struggle to define themselves with a new leader, but it is also bad for the Conservatives who need a strong NDP to win.

Does all this matter? Maybe. Trends matter more than numbers, and we are a long way from an election.

But remember that Trudeau's numbers are now equal to Harper's numbers going into the last election that ended the Conservative's 10 years in power. Ten years of a record to defend, 10 years of governing (and attending Question Period), 10 years for people to get tired of your face. After only 2 years of the uber popular, photogenic, sunny ways smiles from Trudeau and we see him now at the same place as Harper with much less to defend against.

That should be the cause for concern for the Liberals. After all, the parties were only separated by one million votes in the last election. To get to a tie in votes cast, that means only 500,000 voters need to change their minds, so small fluctuations in polling numbers can have large consequences.


Richard Mahoney:

Tom makes a good point about the challenge in front of the NDP: Canadians need to understand what they are about in 2018—what kind of priorities do they have? Where will their focus be?

And Will is right to recognize the reality that the Liberals have put Justin Trudeau out there. The remarkable thing about the "Town Halls" the PM has been doing of late is that is just how much risk he takes when he puts himself in a situation where people can ask him anything, yell at him, complain about whatever is bothering them, challenge him on tough issues like the damages paid to Omar Khadr (damages paid because of the actions taken by predecessor governments, including, and some would say especially, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.)

The Conservatives carefully vetted events that their leader went to. They did not allow the open, accountable sessions the PM has. In many ways, that will benefit the Prime Minister. While no one is happy the government had to pay Khadr, Trudeau's answer to a heckler on that issue puts the whole thing in context—it was something the government had to do because Canadian governments that came before took actions that took away the liberties of a Canadian citizen, and kept him there, and the courts said that was wrong.

That said, we cannot make too much out of polling results now, this long before an election.

First of all, polls that determine party support ask some form of this question: If an election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for? The problem is that there is not an election tomorrow and most Canadians are not thinking about whom they might vote for in an election years away. If a week is a long time in politics...

I would add that we have had two recent sets of by-elections, actual elections where people had to think of whom they would vote for now. In those by-elections, the Liberals under Trudeau held their own seats and picked up two seats from the Conservatives. The NDP won none of the by-elections, and saw vote levels at historic lows.

While the Liberals have lots of tough issues to handle with the challenge of governing, this tightening in public opinion is to be expected, and is par for the course.

Trudeau and the Liberals will need to make progress this year on NAFTA and what comes after, in dealing with some slowing in the economy and making sure the benefits of growth help those in the middle class, that jobs are created, that they make progress on their climate change plan and so on.

But it's not a three-alarm fire.  


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. Will Stewart is Managing Principal at Navigator, served as Chief of Staff to several Ontario Ministers and often appears as a national affairs commentator.  Tom Parking is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 


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