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Halfway through the gruelling federal election campaign, party leaders would be wise to keep a laser focus on the economy: The latest polling numbers suggest widespread angst over jobs, taxes and living standards.
Close to half of Canadians rank the broad economy as the most important issue facing the country today. And if more specific concerns such as jobs, public spending, taxes and income inequality are included, it's top of mind for most voters across the country, according to an Internet survey released Monday by the Vancouver-based Angus Reid Institute.
Health care comes in second, well ahead of the environment and education. Only 8 per cent of respondents place security or terrorism as one of their top two concerns, slightly ahead of ethics and accountability. The Senate barely makes the radar screen and national unity ranks last everywhere but Quebec.
The poll confirms anecdotal evidence that Canadians are feeling increasingly gloomy about their prospects in the wake of the resource slump, which helped drive the economy into a technical recession in the first half of the year. Slightly more than one-third of poll respondents say their standard of living has deteriorated in the past year, while a mere 8 per cent say it has improved. And 25 per cent think it will get worse over the next year, more than double the number of optimists who expect things to improve.
This, in turn, has undercut some of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's strongest selling points: his government's steady hand on the tiller, prudent fiscal management and the risks of worse damage if voters hand the keys to either of his rivals, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
The poll results underscore the problems faced by the Conservatives in their bid for another majority, showing Mr. Mulcair ahead of Mr. Harper when it comes to whom people trust on economic issues.
Even on the question of whether the three leaders would inspire confidence among foreign and domestic investors – long a weak spot for the NDP and its commitment to higher corporate and personal taxes for the wealthy – Mr. Mulcair fares reasonably well.
But the NDP doesn't face clear sailing to a historic victory. For one thing, the Conservatives have an unshakeable base of support. Among committed Tory voters across Canada, 89 per cent trust Mr. Harper on the economy. Of those who say they intend to vote NDP, 82 per cent trust Mr. Mulcair to get things right, while Mr. Trudeau wins the trust of 79 per cent of people who are leaning Liberal.
"There are a lot of soft voters out there, especially on the left-of-centre flank. These are not committed voters," said Shachi Kurl, senior vice-president of the non-partisan institute, which was set up last year to conduct public-interest research.
"These are folks who could abandon either Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau between now and Oct. 19. What's interesting is that as of today, they don't see Mulcair as necessarily risky on the economy and can be well-trusted. Those are two areas where Stephen Harper has traditionally held the high ground," Ms. Kurl said.
"But what it also shows is that right now, none of the leaders really have that high ground on the economy. None of them have a knockout punch."
The online survey was conducted in early September among 1,563 people, with representation in all provinces and from both official languages. Statistical margins of error are not applicable to online polls, but a sample of similar size would yield a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Some of the findings are predictable.
More unexpected, though, is how much emphasis respondents put on having a fair tax system, listed as one of the top two priorities for government by 42 per cent of those surveyed. That's slightly higher than the number who tab job promotion, economic growth and bolstering social programs as the leading tasks.