Canadians' conception of the appropriate role for government is changing significantly, and last month's election increased, rather than decreased, the democratic discontents of "disgruntled voters." These are two of the most relevant findings of a national public opinion survey sponsored by the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education and conducted by André Turcotte of Carleton University and Allan Gregg of Harris/Decima.
When respondents were asked whether their confidence in governments' ability to tackle big challenges was increasing or decreasing, two to three times more Canadians reported their confidence to be decreasing. In particular, the survey found public confidence to be decreasing in governments' ability to improve economic productivity, reform health care, deal with climate change and handle moral issues.
When asked who else might play a larger role in tackling these challenges, two out of five Canadians mentioned large corporations with respect to improving productivity, three out of 10 mentioned large corporations with respect to improving health care, and five out of 10 mentioned large corporations with respect to dealing with climate change. Individuals and religious organizations were most frequently mentioned as the preferred agents for dealing with moral issues.
When asked to whom respondents would first turn for help in dealing with their primary concerns, only 15 per cent said they would turn to government; 20 per cent said government was the last resource they'd turn to.
But it would be a mistake to interpret this response as meaning that Canadians are becoming anti-government or that they see a much-diminished place for government. Rather, these findings suggest it's Canadians' conception of the most appropriate role for government that's changing - with more citizens now seeing government as an enabler, facilitator and security backstop rather than as a prime mover, "vision" achiever or provider of grand solutions to big problems.
According to the survey results, a strong majority of Canadians would prefer governments to "help me do it, rather than do it for me," "provide information to help me decide, rather than deciding for me," "treat me as an individual rather than as a member of a group," and "focus more on creating equality of opportunity than on equality of results."
Many of the values underlying these attitudes are "conservative oriented," although, as such values become more "mainstream," they'll likely become less identifiable as "conservative." The challenge for the majority Conservative government will be to give shape and substance to Canadians' desire for "a government that enables" while maintaining or increasing public support as it performs that more modest role.
The survey also revealed another challenge of great relevance to the political parties. More than half of the respondents said the federal election left them with a "more negative impression" of federal politics than they held previously, "negative campaigning" and the "waste of money" involved being the features they liked least.
Three out of four Canadians also say that politicians don't share their views as to the most important issues facing the country. When many of these same respondents said economic issues were their top concern, they meant personal economic concerns (about their job, their mortgage, their pension). Unless party positions on economic issues recognized and targeted this personal dimension, they may well have missed the mark. The Conservative Party apparently did better on this front than its competitors.
Did respondents provide any clues as to what the newly elected MPs might do to increase voter trust? Yes: Spend more time on representing local people than on furthering personal careers and partisan interests; devote more effort to debating important issues in the House of Commons; and prove you can deal effectively with today's problems before waxing eloquent on tomorrow's challenges.
Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education and the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. The survey's full results will be released in Ottawa on Wednesday and posted on the Manning Centre website after Friday.