Oil-sands criticism ‘incrementally helped’ Mulcair, poll shows

The Globe and Mail (Includes correction)

New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 6, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s complaint that unrestrained development of the Alberta oil sands is hurting other parts of the Canadian economy does not seem to have diminished support for his party.

A new poll by Nanos Research – one that was conducted two weeks after Mr. Mulcair was denounced by three Western premiers for saying resource development had afflicted Canada with a case of “Dutch disease” – suggests the federal New Democrats had the support of 33.6 per cent of decided voters while the Conservatives had the backing of 33.5 per cent.

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While that puts the two parties in a statistical tie, it is the first time Nanos polls have ever had the NDP numerically ahead of the Tories.

It’s an indication that Canadians are not running, en masse, away from the New Democrats after Mr. Mulcair said the developers of the oil sands must pay a greater price for the toll they are taking on the environment because their success is driving up the dollar and hurting a wide range of industries, including manufacturing, fishing and forestry.

Mr. Mulcair’s statements, which prompted a brief war of words with the premiers of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia and forced the NDP Leader to make a conciliatory trip to the West, were interpreted by critics as a gaffe. They certainly sparked the first major challenge he has faced during his turn as party leader.

But “there is no massive blow-back on what he’s done and it’s actually incrementally helped the New Democrats,” said Nik Nanos, president of the polling firm. “The NDP’s pitting the Prairies against the rest of Canada and linking that to jobs and the environment looks like a positive strategy.”

While the survey suggests that support for the New Democrats fell in the Prairie provinces during the time the comments about Dutch disease were in the news, support increased in British Columbia and Quebec and held steady elsewhere.

Quebec and British Columbia are two key provinces for the NDP, Mr. Nanos said. But the Prairies, he said, are not critical for the party to hold on to the job of Official Opposition and to be competitive nationally.

The telephone poll of 1,201 randomly selected adult Canadians was conducted between May 26 and 31. The responses of the 1,006 people who indicated that they are committed voters are considered to accurately reflect the broad opinions of the Canadian public within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

The survey suggested that the Liberals were up slightly in popular support, from 23.3 per cent in April to 24.9 per cent a month later. But that increase is within the margin of error and still leaves them well behind the other two parties.

“What the research suggests is, at this point in time, the NDP are the key counterpoint for Canadians to the Harper government,” Mr. Nanos said. “Because the Liberals have not had as high a profile, because they still have an interim leader, because there hasn’t been a significant focus on their leadership, they have basically ceded the non-Harper universe to the New Democrats in the short term and Thomas Mulcair has stepped into that vacuum.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was well ahead of Mr. Mulcair and Bob Rae, the Liberal interim leader, when respondents were asked to name the party leader they felt was the most trustworthy and competent and who had the best vision for Canada. But Mr. Harper is still down significantly on the leadership index from the high numbers he enjoyed over the previous three years.

And, in terms of support for the parties, Mr. Nanos said, “if you are Stephen Harper, you can’t be happy being tied with Thomas Mulcair.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the three provinces that criticized Thomas Mulcair. This version has been corrected.