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Stephen Harper Plumbing Record Lows on Trust, Direction, and Approval


[Ottawa – October 29, 2013] The recent Senate spending scandal is registering strongly with voters and shaping up to be a truly frightening shock to this government’s prospects as they try to hit the reset button in lead up to their Halloween Eve convention. It comes on the heels of a series of setbacks which finds the government in its most precarious position since it assumed office some seven plus years ago.

It is important to remember, however, that Stephen Harper has come back before and it would be foolish to count him out. Nevertheless, he has never faced such a daunting challenge with such a meagre reservoir of political capital. These poll numbers reveal a number of modern records in our polling, none of them auspicious for the government.

Let’s start with the broader context. For reasons that are only loosely connected to the misadventures on the senate scandal front, the government finds itself mired in its lowest levels of voter support since it assumed power. This is not simply a product of the remarkable renaissance of the Liberals under the guidance of their new leader, Justin Trudeau. It is linked to a precipitous decline in the broader outlook on national and federal trajectory. In another of a series of modern polling records, the Conservatives have now reached the lowest levels of confidence in broad direction for a federal government seen in over twenty years. Confidence in national direction remains mired below 40 points, but confidence in federal direction has fallen to the lowest levels in our records. While 80 plus per cent of the severely shrunken Conservative base may feel good about federal direction, around 80 percent of everybody else (3 in 4 voters) feels bad about it. This is a worst ever score in our polling.

So, what else do we see besides the worst ever scores on direction of federal government and voters support? Mr. Harper’s personal approval numbers are plumbing new lows and his disapproval numbers are soaring. Mr. Mulcair has received a major bump up in approval (for the fourth consecutive time). He now has an insignificant lead over all other leaders in a dramatic turnaround from last spring. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals continue to hold a fairly stable and sizable lead in terms of current voter preferences.

But back to Mr. Harper and the Conservative Party. Let’s look at the trust thing for a moment. We consider both broad institutional trust in government and his trust levels with respect to the current affair. Neither of these numbers provides any relief from the rather frightening pre-Halloween numbers being served up by the public. Trust in government to do the right thing all or most of the time has fallen to their lowest levels since 1990. It appeared that the multi decade erosion in trust in government couldn’t go much lower but this number shows that we haven’t reached the basement yet.

Consider the issue at hand – the senate spending scandal and the pyrotechnics around the testimony of Mr. Duffy and his about to be jettisoned erstwhile Conservative senate colleagues, Ms. Wallin and Mr. Brazeau. Are people watching and listening? Yes indeed, this is no north of the Queensway insider’s phenomenon. The vast majority of voters are following this, about half of them closely. Close attention may not be quite to the levels we saw during the Gomery inquiry, but they are reaching into that territory. As another comparison, attention is nearly double what it was for the Helena Guergis affair.

So if everyone is watching, what they are concluding? Noting the continued downward pressure on direction, trust and voting intention we asked who was relatively more believable to this point. Although many are suspending judgement the majority do have a view and, once again, the numbers are pretty scary for Steven Harper’s Conservatives. Mr. Duffy may not quite have elevated himself to folk hero status but for a scorned and about to be sacked public figure he is acquitting himself remarkably well in the credibility sweepstakes with the current Prime Minister. By a margin of over two to one, those who have an opinion tend to find Mr. Duffy more believable. Less than one in five voters thinks the PM is the more credible.

Is this just anecdotally curious or does it have any implications for the future of Stephen Harper and his party as they begin their convention? When asked to choose what the Prime Minister should do if it turns out that he has been lying or misleading Parliament (and the public), they overwhelmingly choose immediate resignation. Given the lean on credibility, this preference may become a more active pressure if this affair continues to unravel.

We also asked whether this affair would affect voting in the next election. While only a rough guide to its true impacts it is highly notable that around half of voters say this will affect how they vote.

For historical guidance we can look to previous and other current scandals to gauge the severity of this episode. The Sponsorship scandal reshaped the political landscape in Canada. It ushered in the regime of Stephen Harper on promises of higher standards of accountability and ethical conduct. Notably, the public feel that the current scandal is even more serious than that landmark episode. Perhaps worse for the beleaguered Conservative Party, the currently back burner Robocall Scandal is seen as just as serious as this scandal and more serious as well than the sponsorship scandal.

Finally, we looked at long term tracking to see if this affair had pushed Canadians tolerance for an unelected senate over the cliff. Most Canadians would prefer immediate abolition of the senate, (something much more constitutionally complex than many understand). What is mildly surprising is that this sentiment is actually somewhat lower than it was twenty years ago.

Along with higher ethical standards and stronger accountability, Steven Harper promised senate reform in the period when he was seeking power. Now after nearly eight years at the reins he finds himself embroiled in a regime-threatening ethics scandal related to the unelected senate that he committed to fix.

Click here for the full report: Full Report (October 29, 2013)

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