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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks in New York on Sept. 25, 2013.ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

Support for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is dropping sharply, according to a new poll showing a majority of Canadians believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

The Nanos Research poll also shows 56 per cent of people rate the government's 2013 performance as "somewhat poor" or "very poor," a far higher share than the poll had found in earlier years. In particular, 44 per cent of respondents in the Prairies said the government's 2013 performance was "very poor," signalling unrest in the Harper Conservatives' backyard.

The figures come from the annual "Mood of Canada" poll, conducted by Nanos and the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) and released Monday. The results are bleak for a government that has spent months coping with the fallout of the Senate spending scandal, which has triggered an RCMP investigation and raised questions about the conduct of those in Mr. Harper's own office.

(For more analysis and numbers, check out our political polls page.)

The Senate scandal differs from previous controversies in that it directly implicates the Prime Minister, who has been tasked with personally defending his handling of the issue, pollster Nik Nanos said.

"There was always a bit of a buffer. This year was the first year where the Prime Minister was very closely associated with the controversy, specifically the Senate controversy," he said. "… I think we can now mark 2013 as the year that Stephen Harper's personal brand took a hit."

In the Mood of Canada survey's seven-year history, this year's results set new lows for the government: 55 per cent said Canada is headed in the "wrong direction," while the poll had never shown that figure to be higher than 38 per cent. Another 38 per cent said government had a "very poor" year, more than double what the poll had ever shown. And 45 per cent said Canada's reputation was "not improved" internationally this year; 8 per cent said the same a year ago.

The Senate scandal "has had a significant spillover effect in how people are viewing the government writ-large," Mr. Nanos said.

Asked to rate the Harper government's 2013 performance, 12 per cent said "very good" and 14 per cent said "somewhat good" – a total of 26 per cent generally in approval, down from 33 per cent in 2012 and 40 per cent in 2011, when the Conservatives won a majority government. Conversely, 18 per cent said the government's performance was "somewhat poor" in 2013 and 38 per cent – the largest cohort by far – said "very poor." The rest said the government did an average job, or were unsure.

Poll respondents also see fraying relationships between Ottawa and the provinces, with 58 per cent saying relations had somewhat not improved or not improved at all, up sharply from previous years.

Generally, the Conservative government got poorer reviews from female respondents, in Atlantic Canada and among people between the ages of 18 and 29. But across age groups, geographic regions and gender, the trends were the same: More people say the government is doing a poor job, and that Canada is headed in the wrong direction, than say otherwise.

The poll didn't ask who respondents would vote for, but "we have to think of it more as a leading indicator," Mr. Nanos said. However, recent polls have shown Conservative support dropping. A Dec. 19 Ekos poll showed Justin Trudeau's Liberals at 32 per cent, followed by Mr. Harper's Conservatives at what Ekos called a "historic low" of 26 per cent and Thomas Mulcair's NDP at 23 per cent. The Nanos results are based on weighted online responses from 1,000 Canadians between Dec. 14 and Dec. 16. The pollster says the results are considered accurate within 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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