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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks at a campaign event in Vancouver, BC on Saturday April 16, 2011.

Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/ The Canadian Press

Liberal attack ads warning that the Conservatives harbour a secret agenda to cut health care funding appear to be having their intended effect.

A new poll that looks at how Canadians view the leadership abilities of those running for prime minister suggests that voters' assessments of Stephen Harper have dropped since the Liberals went negative in their television advertising this weekend.

The survey of 400 voters conducted Saturday for Nanos Research, indicates that the Conservative Leader's numbers on the leadership index score fell to 91.6 from 105.4.

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"The only new thing that's happened on the campaign in the last day or so are the new Liberal attack ads," said Nik Nanos, the president of the polling firm. "What this shows is that, yesterday, Stephen Harper was noticeably down. And we know that the Liberal attack ads started. So we're going to have to watch in the next few days to see if it continues."

Mr. Harper is still well ahead of his rivals. NDP Leader Jack Layton, who had been riding a bit of a crest in the same index in recent days, also took a dip, to 56.9 from 67.6. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff held steady, increasing slightly to 51.9 from 49.5. And Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe took quite a big jump, to 19.5 from 9.8.

Mr. Duceppe's numbers are always low in this index because one of the three variables measured is the leaders' vision for Canada. But he appears to have received a bump from his solid performance in the French-language leaders' debate.

The survey also suggests that health care remains the number one national issue in the minds of Canadians, hovering above jobs and the economy.

The Liberal ads, which the Tories have lambasted as incorporating "some of the dirtiest tricks in the book," accuse Mr. Harper of supportive of "American-style, private, for-profit health care."

The Liberals are playing to their strength and a Conservative weakness, said Mr. Nanos. Voters, he said, traditionally perceive the Liberals and the NDP to have more credibility on the health file.

Mr. Harper said during the second week of the campaign that he would extend the increase written into the health accord that dictates how much money Ottawa transfers to the provinces for two years after the accord expires in 2014.

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So "the upside for the Conservatives is he is already on the record as saying something," said Mr. Nanos.

But, if the Tories want to counter the Liberal ads, he said, they will have to fight back with something more than the claim that this is nothing more than a gratuitous negative attack. The Conservatives, after all, have had a few attack ads of their own.

"They have to keep hammering away at jobs and the economy as the ballot box issue because the greater the number of Canadians who are focused on that, the greater the positional advantage for the Conservatives," said Mr. Nanos.

In all of these types of polls, Mr. Harper has been well ahead.

It's an advantage for the Conservative Leader to have been sitting in the Prime Minister's chair because Canadians can more easily perceive him in a leadership role, said Mr. Nanos.

So, rather than looking at who is ahead and who is behind, it's more important to look at who is trending up and who is trending down, he said, and, at the moment, Mr. Harper is trending down.

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