OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have not slipped in public popularity despite the robocalls controversy that has gripped political debate on Parliament Hill, according to the results of a new poll.
Moreover, the national survey conducted for Postmedia News and Global TV found that a slim majority of Canadians polled believe the country is on the “right track” under the Tories’ leadership – although that level of confidence has dropped slightly since last year’s election.
The Tories continue to hold a comfortable lead over their rivals with 37 per cent of Canadians polled saying they would vote for them if an election occurred tomorrow – unchanged since a poll taken last November.
The NDP under interim leader Nycole Turmel would receive 29 per cent of the vote (down two points) and the Liberals under interim leader Bob Rae would garner 23 per cent of the vote (up two points).
The Bloc Quebecois under Daniel Paille would receive seven per cent of the vote (up one point) while Elizabeth May’s Green party would receive four per cent, also up one point.
The poll was conducted last week amid continuing controversy that first erupted in February when Postmedia News and the Ottawa Citizen revealed that fraudulent phone calls were placed in the Guelph, Ont., riding directing voters to the wrong polling stations in last year’s election.
Since then, political debate on Parliament Hill has been dominated by the robocalls – which opposition parties claim occurred in dozens of ridings – and Elections Canada has begun a major investigation after being deluged with thousands of complaints.
Harper and his senior campaign team have denied any involvement in the affair, and no evidence has emerged publicly to suggest they are connected.
The Tories say they are victims of “baseless smears” by the Liberals and New Democrats – who contend that the Tories are stonewalling as they push for answers.
As this political jockeying was going on, Ipsos Reid conducted a blended telephone and online poll of 3,154 Canadians to determine their views. Ipsos Reid president Darrell Bricker said in an interview the survey found that the Tories have not yet suffered any real political damage over the controversy.
“Pretty much at this stage of the game, based on the hullabaloo that’s been happening in Ottawa, you would think that these numbers should be far worse. And they’re not.”
He said the robocalls controversy appears to be confined to “inside the beltway” of politics in Ottawa, as Canadians focus more on issues such as the economy.
“On this one, there’s no direct link to the prime minister so far. It doesn’t relate to the improper expenditure of public funds or fraud in that sense. And it’s something that happened in the world of partisan politics rather than the activity of government.”
The poll suggests that Canadians are deeply split over allegations the federal Conservative party ran a “co-ordinated” robocalls campaign in the last federal election to deceive voters – but most seem to agree that byelections should be held in ridings where the practice occurred.
The survey found that 50 per cent of respondents believe the accusations against the Tories, while 47 per cent disagreed with the statement that the governing party was behind a coordinated robocalls campaign in last year’s vote.
Bricker said that the Tories’ popularity could potentially shift if there are fundamental changes to social programs like the Old Age Security pension program – a move that Harper has already declared is coming in the March 29 federal budget.
Harper first hinted at the forthcoming changes in a speech in January but the government has since been silent on the details.
“The opposition parties got focused on that, which is probably something that Canadians want to talk about, but then they got distracted like a bunch of crows on shiny objects by things like robocalls,” said Bricker.
“And the Canadian public just turns the channel and just turns off.”
The Ipsos Reid poll also found that overall, 47 per cent of respondents “approve” of the performance of the government under Harper’s leadership, while 52 per cent disapprove.
When asked specifically about Harper’s performance, 48 per cent say they approve of his handling of the prime minister’s job (unchanged since last month) while the other half (51 per cent) disapprove, and one per cent don’t know.
A slim majority (51 per cent) of respondents believe the country is headed on the right track. By comparison, during the federal election, 57 per cent believed the country was on the right track.
For the March 6-8 survey, a representative randomly selected sample of 1,001 adult Canadians was interviewed by telephone, and 2,153 interviews were conducted online.
Ipsos Reid merged the two samples. The margin of error is plus or minus two percentage points, 19 times out of 20.