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Nik Nanos: Saudi deal shows limits to what Canadians will do for jobs

Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research.

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Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research. Follow him on Twitter at @niknanos.

Canadians want good jobs and to live by the values we cherish, such as equality and mutual respect. Why not? What's wrong with wanting our cake and eating it too?

Contradictory forces often bump up against each other when you look at public opinion research. Ask Canadians and on the one hand they support taxes being reduced and at the same time oppose cuts to government programs that are funded by those taxes. Some may call this paradox of what we want and what we need.

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The current deal to sell Canadian made armoured vehicles to the government of Saudi Arabia is a case in point.

The research commissioned by The Globe and Mail and conducted by Nanos Research suggests that the vast majority of Canadians have a dim impression of the Saudi regime and by a margin of two-to-one believe that human rights are more important than the 3,000 jobs the transaction would create. This in an environment where the price of oil is in a free fall, the Canadian dollar is weak and the economy is bordering on anemic.

What lessons can one learn from this?

First, perhaps there is a moral tipping point. Even though the economy is weak and Canadians want jobs, doing business with a government that, some argue, has among the worst human rights record in the world makes Canadians uneasy. From a research standpoint, the fact that more than eight of 10 Canadians have a negative (54 per cent) or somewhat negative (33 per cent) impression of the government of Saudi Arabia should give one pause – that perhaps there is a level of public discomfort in any sort of eagerness to do business with this particular regime. Of note, only one in 20 Canadians (5 per cent) have a positive (0.4 per cent) or somewhat positive (4.2 per cent) impression of the government of Saudi Arabia.

Of course, one can argue, who are we to judge? If we were to only do business with popular friendly countries we like, Canadians might not have the jobs they need.

The second lesson is that it's not just about who we do business with but what we are selling. Given the choice of a $15-billion arms deal that creates 3,000 much-needed jobs and the principle of only selling to countries that respect human rights, the principle of human rights trumped jobs by 28 percentage points. It is the linkage of selling arms to an unpopular regime with weak human rights that is probably the biggest disconnect for most Canadians.

The reality is that a transaction such as this does not quite fit what Canadians would expect of the government of Canada. Sell arms to NATO, no problem, or to other countries which respect human rights, sure. A country with a very weak human rights record? Perhaps not.

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The third lesson is likely one for the new Trudeau government. Still very popular – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has sent signals to the world that Canada is ready to be engaged and to lead on environmental issues. He has advanced gender parity in his government and his cabinet but is hostage to an arms deal that most Canadians likely would have guessed he would have opposed on principle or which at the very least is not consistent with his personal world view.

No one said governing was easy. It's not – because Canadians want their jobs and also to cling to the values that make us Canadian. In that respect, balancing the jobs we need with the country we aspire to be may be the politically trickiest part of Canada's arms deal with the regime in Saudi Arabia.

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