There was good news for the Conservative government in a national opinion poll last month, but also sobering news for all of Canada's politicians and parties.
The poll was conducted for the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, using a representative sample of 2,067 respondents. As might be expected, when asked "What concerns you the most these days?", a strong majority of Canadians made reference to the economy or some aspect of it, such as jobs or personal finances.
It was on this issue, the economy, that Stephen Harper's government received its highest performance rating – 5.03 out of 10, where zero means very poor and 10 means very good performance.
On health care, respondents were asked whether the federal government should give more direction or more freedom to the provinces with respect to health-care reform. Two-thirds of respondents said more freedom. This suggests that the government's decision to provide no-strings-attached health-care transfers to the provinces is very much in line with public thinking.
Also, 58 per cent of respondents said any increases in health-care spending should come from health-care users and private investors, with only 32 per cent saying such increased spending should come from taxes.
Support for both no-strings-attached health transfers and shifting more financing onto users and the private sector was strongest in Quebec. This suggests that Quebec is the province where systemic health-care reform is most likely to be publicly supported, if a political party has the courage to offer it.
With respect to energy pipelines and energy project developments, 68 per cent of respondents agree to some degree that "American-financed environmental groups should be more closely regulated by the government" – the same percentage that agree to some degree that "multinational corporations should be more closely regulated by the government."
Now for the sobering news: Public respect for politicians continues to plummet. Asked about politicians, a majority of Canadians consistently responded negatively – 52 per cent said politicians are lazy, 58 per cent said they are unprincipled, 59 per cent said they are incompetent, 69 per cent said they are dishonest, 77 said they are untruthful, and 90 per cent said they are more concerned about money than about people.
In my view, government performance ratings are so low at least in part because it is politicians who are the "public face" of government. If your opinion of politicians is generally low, your evaluation of institutions run by them is likely to be low as well.
In the public's mind, this negative perception is reinforced every time unethical political conduct makes the headlines, such as during the sponsorship scandal or the more recent robo-call affair.
Any political strategy, tactic or technology that deliberately employs a lie to misdirect or mislead voters is deplorable in itself, but it also damages the democratic process and public confidence in all parties and politicians.
Codes of ethics, ethics commissioners, regulatory and watchdog legislation, such as the federal government's Public Accountability Act – all these measures have a place in raising the ethical tone. But politicians and political parties must themselves take pro-active steps to counter the perception that we are all ethically challenged.
For the federal Liberals, this requires abandoning the conviction that the end justifies the means, a view that took deep root during Jean Chrétien's years of battling western Reformers and Quebec separatists. For the New Democrats, it means taking a critical look from an ethical perspective at the electoral and communications tactics of some of their union supporters, especially in the public-service unions. And for the Conservatives, it means ensuring that conservatism means more than adherence to right-of-centre policies – that it also means "doing the right thing."
Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.