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Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs Ottawa September 2, 2014, on route to the NATO summit in the U.K. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs Ottawa September 2, 2014, on route to the NATO summit in the U.K. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Bruce Anderson

If Canada’s on the right track, will voters give Harper credit for it? Add to ...

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National’s “At Issue” panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

There was more good news about the Canadian economy last week. GDP expanded at a 3.1 per cent rate. Exports are up. The stock market hit an all-time high. Revenues to Ottawa grew, and the federal government posted a healthy surplus.

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Meanwhile, in other news, polling data shows the federal Conservatives are struggling to hold 30 per cent support.

What gives?

It’s long been argued that when people think the country’s going in the right direction, incumbents feel the voters’ love. But it may be time to question that thesis, or at least qualify it a lot more.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen several incumbent provincial governments re-elected in spite of uneasiness about current economic conditions. Many “mood” indicators foretold an NDP government in B.C., a Wildrose government in Alberta, a Tory government in Ontario, and longer spell of dismissal for the Liberals in Quebec. None of this panned out.

And now, in Ottawa, there’s further evidence that this connection is breaking down, in a different way.

Consider these numbers from our latest Abacus poll:

  • More people (43 per cent) say the country is heading in the right direction than say it is off on the wrong track (25 per cent). But the Conservatives are having trouble getting credit for what’s going right. As of now, 33 per cent approve of the job the Conservatives are doing, meaning at least 10 per cent of the electorate feels things are going well, regardless of, not because of, the Conservatives.
  • Even more striking, while 33 per cent “approve” of the government’s performance, only 19 per cent are convinced the Conservatives “have governed well enough to deserve re-election.” Put differently, 14 per cent of voters give the government a passing grade, but a barely passing grade.

Of the voters who think that Canada is heading in the right direction, 59 per cent are not planning on voting Conservative. As of now, 32 per cent would vote Liberal, 18 per cent for the NDP. While this could change, today the Tories are converting just 41 per cent of those who are happy with the way things are going.

There are several reasons why this is happening.

For years, Canadians have watched how interconnected our economy has become with that of the rest of the world. This government, possibly more than any before it, has been at pains to stress this fact. On the positive side for the incumbents, it means that when things go badly in the rest of the world, Canadians aren’t so quick to blame Ottawa. But it also means that as things recover in Europe and the U.S., Canadians can decide to credit good times here, with better times elsewhere.

Canadians have also come to believe that governments can’t wave a policy wand and make a sick economy well. Again, Conservatives more than any other party, preach that markets, not governments, are chiefly responsible for solving economic problems, providing economic momentum, creating jobs. It’s tricky to demand too much credit, when your overall economic philosophy is more hands off than interventionist.

A third factor is that Canadians care plenty about the economy, especially when times are bad, but when times improve, interest in other priorities is kindled. Some want more emphasis on the environment, others on health care, or pensions, or poverty. For many, tax cuts, a stronger military, and getting tough(er) on crime simply doesn’t excite them, the way it does the Conservative base.

Finally, a good number of centrist voters have felt themselves pushed away or excluded by the partisan and divisive language the government sometimes uses to advance its agenda. These are people who voted Conservative in the last two or three elections even though they do not consider themselves to be “right wing,” and distrust ideology generally. If the wolf no longer is at the door, and seeing leaders they like across the aisle, some of these voters are more tempted by, and perceive less economic risk, in the idea of a change.

Our latest polling numbers suggest a path to a fourth victory is possible for the Conservatives, but it would require rejuvenation – at the very least a change in tone and style. Between the 19 per cent who say “governed well enough” to deserve a fourth term and the 43 per cent who say the country’s going in the right direction, there are a lot of votes up for grabs.

A handful of ministers look like they are trying to change things up, but the central playbook seems to be more of what produced today’s gap between better economic times, and weaker government support. And a government which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars advertising its economic credentials, seems to be finding itself, well, talking to itself.

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