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Peter MacKay, seen here on Jan. 26, 2020, told the CBC that he has been conducting interviews in French.

BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Canadians are unimpressed with the Liberal government. If the Conservatives can find the right leader, they could be very competitive in the next federal election.

But the Tory faithful must answer a question more important even than the party’s stand on climate change or social issues. They must decide whether they can afford to choose a leader who is weak in French.

For 13 years, Nanos Research, in conjunction with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, has conducted an annual poll on the mood of the country. Public approval of the Liberal government has declined each year since 2015; by the end of December, 2019, it had reached its lowest ebb.

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According to the survey, which was conducted between Dec. 22 and 29, just 27 per cent of Canadians rate the performance of the minority Liberal government as very or somewhat good. Forty-four per cent ranked the Liberals’ performance as very poor or somewhat poor. The rest considered their performance average, or were unsure. The phone and online survey of 1,010 Canadians has a margin of error of 3.1 per cent 19 times out of 20.

“Perceptions of the performance of the federal government hit an all-time low since the start of Mood of Canada tracking,” the study concluded.

Things are no better on the federal-provincial or international front. Just 12 per cent of Canadians believe that relations between Ottawa and the provinces have improved in the past year, while 61 per cent think things have not improved.

Similarly, 43 per cent of Canadians believe this country’s standing before the world has not improved in the past year, versus 22 per cent who think things have gotten better.

The carbon tax, lack of progress on pipelines, the Jody Wilson-Raybould affair, tension with China: For one reason or another, Canadians are not impressed with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s performance at home or abroad. Remember, in last October’s election, the Liberals won the seat count but lost the popular vote. The Grits are vulnerable.

To cement his front-runner status in the Conservative leadership race, former cabinet minister Peter MacKay’s team has submitted the full $300,000 that is required from each campaign, two months before the deadline.

But at his launch last week, Mr. MacKay stumbled in his effort to read from a prepared text in French. “How can you represent Quebeckers when you can’t speak their language?” Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, Mr. MacKay’s main challenger, tweeted in response.

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How Canadians rate the performance

of the federal government

Telephone and online random survey

conducted, Dec. 22-29

Very good

Somewhat good

Average

Somewhat poor

Very poor

Unsure

5%

3%

17%

12%

25%

24%

26%

11%

16%

15%

19%

13%

15%

22%

24%

23%

23%

27%

28%

26%

25%

21%

37%

15%

6%

11%

10%

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

N=1,010, accurate 3.1 percentage points plus or

minus, 19 times out of 20.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:nanos research

How Canadians rate the performance

of the federal government

Telephone and online random survey conducted, Dec. 22-29

Very good

Somewhat good

Average

Somewhat poor

Very poor

Unsure

5%

3%

17%

12%

25%

24%

26%

11%

16%

15%

19%

13%

15%

22%

24%

23%

23%

27%

28%

26%

25%

21%

37%

15%

6%

11%

10%

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

N=1,010, accurate 3.1 percentage points plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:nanos research

How Canadians rate the performance of the federal government

Telephone and online random survey conducted, Dec. 22-29

Very good

Somewhat good

Average

Somewhat poor

Very poor

Unsure

5%

3%

17%

12%

24%

26%

25%

11%

16%

15%

13%

15%

19%

22%

24%

23%

23%

27%

28%

26%

25%

21%

37%

15%

6%

11%

10%

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

N=1,010, accurate 3.1 percentage points plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:nanos research

Mr. O’Toole’s French is accented but serviceable. According a source within the O’Toole campaign, who was granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter, the candidate has been calling journalists and potential supporters in Quebec and conducting conversations in French.

Mr. MacKay told the CBC that he, too, has been conducting interviews in French. Although his fluency suffered while he was out of office, “the reality is it’s there, it’s improving, it will continue to improve," the Nova Scotian said.

To be clear, speaking adequate French will not be sufficient for the next leader to add Conservative seats in Quebec. Ever since Lester Pearson stepped down in 1968, Quebeckers have typically voted for candidates from that province. No matter who wins the leadership, the Tories cannot expect to take more than the small clutch of Quebec seats.

But Ontario is a different matter. Middle-class suburban Ontario voters have supported the Conservatives in the past. But they abandoned the party in 2015, in part because they were repulsed by perceived intolerance within the party, which may have contributed to the Tories’ defeat last October as well.

If Ontario voters believe that the Conservative leader is indifferent or hostile to the priorities of Quebeckers, that could be seen as yet another demonstration of Tory intolerance, in which case Ontario and the election will be lost. But if Ontarians believe the candidate is doing his best to connect with Quebeckers, however imperfectly, then the language question could go away.

This is just one of several issues that the Conservatives must get right if they are to prevail in the next election. But it could be worth the effort, because a poll says Mr. Trudeau is vulnerable.

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