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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a bilateral meeting with President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. in Jakarta, Indonesia on Sept. 6.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A wise old pollster once put it to me this way: “When people have decided to get rid of a government,” he said, “it doesn’t matter who the other guys are.”

Somewhere along the way this summer, large numbers of Canadians appear to have suddenly decided they want to get rid of this government. The top-line numbers are arresting enough. Four recent polls, by Angus Reid, Abacus, Leger and Mainstreet, put the Conservatives ahead by between 11 and 14 points. As late as June, the Tory lead was five points or less.

(Another pollster, Nanos, has the Tories just one point ahead. Perhaps significantly, Nanos uses traditional phone polls, while Angus Reid, Abacus and Leger all use online polls. Somebody’s methodology is going to be vindicated!)

But it’s the “crosstabs,” as they say, that tell the real story. The Conservatives, all four polls agree, lead in every region of the country but Quebec. They lead in rural Canada and in urban Canada, but for the three largest cities. Even there, they now lead in the suburban belts around Toronto and Vancouver. They lead among both sexes and all age groups.

Much of this is driven by dissatisfaction with the state of the country, with the government and especially with the Prime Minister. Abacus reports just 27 per cent think the country is headed in the right direction, versus 58 per cent of the opposite opinion. The gap between those who approve and disapprove of the government’s performance is similarly lopsided.

And the Prime Minister? Just 29 per cent have a positive impression of him, according to Abacus, versus 53 per cent negative. Angus Reid similarly finds his net personal approval rating at negative 30 (33 per cent approve, versus the 63 per cent who disapprove).

But there’s worse news for the Liberals. Until now, dislike of the government and the Prime Minister had not translated into active support for their main opponents. That is what appears to have changed. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s personal approval ratings, while hardly glowing, have improved markedly. Angus Reid has him at a net minus-11, while Abacus, for the first time, finds more Canadians with a positive impression of him than negative. Perhaps most strikingly, Angus Reid finds twice as many Canadians would choose Mr. Poilievre as “best prime minister” versus those who prefer the sitting prime minister.

What accounts for this remarkable shift in public opinion? Perhaps the Conservatives’ summer advertising campaign, designed to put a friendlier face on the combative Mr. Poilievre, had something to do with it. More likely, a certain contingent of voters appear to have willed themselves into seeing him as prime ministerial material, out of a determination to be rid of Justin Trudeau.

(Even today, while just 17 per cent of respondents told Abacus they believe the Liberals should be re-elected, another 33 per cent believe it’s “time for a change, but there isn’t a good alternative.” Still, 51 per cent believe “it’s time for a change,” whatever the alternative, which is telling enough.)

Outtakes from a ‘kinder, gentler’ Pierre Poilievre’s efforts to flip the script

And why should so many have suddenly decided that he, and his government, had to go? Is it just, as some commentators have suggested, a natural consequence of the government’s advancing age, as if the public had simply grown tired of it? But people don’t all suddenly tire of something at the same time, or not without some other triggering event.

That “event” might simply be the summer, and the season of socializing that goes with it. People get together, compare notes, and solidify impressions that had until then remained largely inchoate. But again, there must be some other underlying explanation for why those impressions should have formed in the first place.

The right track-wrong track numbers are revealing in this regard, but also extraordinary. By most conventional measures, the country is in relatively good shape. Not so long ago prime ministers would have given their right arm to govern in times of 3-per-cent inflation and 5.5-per-cent unemployment – or even 6-per-cent mortgage rates.

Still, everything is relative. The surge in prices over the past couple of years has plainly scarred a public that had long grown used to 2-per-cent inflation. The present moment, moreover, is one of particular peril for the government, with interest rates having reached levels that are starting to pinch, even as housing prices have yet to decline.

But while inflation and housing are clearly top-of-mind issues for many Canadians, I suspect the public funk is broader and deeper than that. It is what these issues represent, I suggest, as much as the direct pocketbook impact, that is taking its toll on Liberal support.

That line of Mr. Poilievre’s – “everything seems broken” – gets at it. But it’s less a sense of things being broken than of a country that is adrift, under a government that gives every appearance of being asleep at the wheel.

Perhaps the most remarkable responses in the Abacus poll were in answer to the question of whether the government had a “good plan, a bad plan, or no plan” to deal with a number of issues. On issue after issue – cost of living, housing, economic growth, immigration – few (25 per cent or less) were confident the government had a good plan. Larger numbers said they had a bad plan. But the largest single group in most cases believed they had no plan.

This is the kind of thing that truly drives folks batty. Try something, make mistakes, and people will at least credit you for good intentions. But this sort of inertia suggests, fairly or not, either a government that does not know what to do or does not even know there is a problem. Whether Mr. Poilievre has the right answers on inflation or housing may be fairly doubted, but it’s beyond dispute that he picked up on the level of public discontent with these long before the government did.

The shocking collapse in Canadian productivity: in spite of the Liberals’ best efforts, or because of them?

There is a point in the life of any government when a number of different issues coalesce into one big issue. That may be what has been happening over the past few months. The Prime Minister’s own early popularity, which had provided protective cover for the government through its early missteps, had long since worn off.

What had since been revealed, in both the Prime Minister and the government he leads, is a disquieting combination of cynicism (think of all those broken promises, or the endless ethical imbroglios), naiveté (think of its dealings with China, though that may be being too charitable) and doctrinaire ideology (especially over identity issues). It is easy to think of governments that were guilty of one or the other of these. It is quite unprecedented for a government to be so redolent of all three at once.

The government that had come to power promising to reverse all of its predecessors’ abuses of power soon embraced all of them. The Prime Minister who made such show of his commitment to racial and gender issues was found to have serious failings of his own on both fronts – almost as if the whole social-justice campaign had been a con, intended to shield him from the inevitable accusations.

This sort of ruthlessness might have been forgiven, had it been accompanied by competence, or even action. But the growing list of files that the government has either bungled or neglected altogether has given rise to a growing list of crises. The revelation that Canada’s GDP per capita has not grown in six years should confirm that we are in a productivity crisis – an issue the government did not think even to mention in any substantive way until last year’s budget.

The recent news, likewise, that the government does not even know, to the nearest million, how many people are in Canada has crystallized growing unease about its handling of the immigration file. There remains, thankfully, substantial popular and political support for a generous and growth-oriented immigration policy.

But to have ramped up immigration, as the government has, without mobilizing the resources needed to absorb it – to have added all that labour, without doing anything to improve our glacial rates of investment; to have no plan for supplying the housing such numbers would imply – looks either feckless or reckless.

Go down the list, from military procurement to air travel, from violent crime to minority rights, from Afghanistan to judicial appointments. The impression, time and again, is of a government that has other priorities than those on the public mind or, where it does turn its attention to them, looks overwhelmed, out of its depth, paralyzed.

To be sure, the government has made its share of “big bets.” The tens of billions it has ploughed into a handful of battery manufacturing plants comes to mind, as does the Infrastructure Bank. I suppose its multiple attempts to regulate the internet would fall into that category. But the results of these have generally been enough to make the case for paralysis and inertia.

As it is for the government, so, eventually, it is for the country: a sense that it is unable to deal with its problems, that it cannot get things done, but rather is slowly falling into decay and division, until the pattern is so ingrained that it cannot even rouse itself to change. At which point it becomes irreversible.

That, I think, is what people mean when they say, in such emphatic numbers, that things are going in the “wrong direction.” When enough people come to the same conclusion at the same time, it doesn’t matter who the other guys are.

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