Coronavirus: As Canadians huddled at home, feds found meagre support for green recovery plan

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during a news conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Thursday, June 25, 2020, about the same time the Privy Council Office was polling Canadians about the government's response to the coronavirus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Internal federal government polling from June, just released to Global News through an access to information request, shows that the spread of COVID-19 was easily the most important thing on most voters’ minds as summer approached, regardless of gender, age, income or where those Canadians lived.

But the polling also told the Trudeau government two other things: there appeared to be little appetite for an economic recovery plan that placed a high priority on quickly transforming to a carbon-neutral economy; and voters appeared to have little concern about mounting deficits and debt.

The results from the poll would almost certainly have been used for the government’s late-summer political agenda, which included proroguing Parliament and then re-setting its direction in a Speech from the Throne.

The internal polling was commissioned by the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic department that supports the prime minister, as part of the PCO’s weekly polling program.

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Read more: Governments’ recovery plans should take ‘green route,’ study says

The polling paints a snapshot of an electorate that, in June at least, was staying home and was worried about the spread of the coronavirus, but was generally satisfied with the way the federal government was protecting the health of Canadians — and communicating with Canadians about the virus.

For the week ending June 22, the PCO’s pollster asked 44 questions in which respondents were asked to consider the government’s response and priorities over a range of topics. Four of those questions specifically referred to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions or being “environmentally-friendly” and were all asked in the context of economic recovery.

There were no questions in which respondents were prompted to rank the federal government’s performance on supporting the oil and gas industry or any other industrial sector nor were respondents asked specifically about the role the oil and gas sector ought to play in any economic recovery.

The first question in the survey was open-ended, asking respondents to name anything they thought should receive “the greatest attention” from the federal government.

The top response — from 26 per cent of respondents — was coronavirus, followed by health care (15 per cent) and economy (15 per cent). “Environment/climate change” was named as the issue that should receive the greatest attention from the federal government by just 2.5 per cent of respondents.

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To contrast, internal polling done by the PCO for the week ending nearly a year earlier, on July 26, 2019 — also obtained through an access to information request — found a markedly different set of priorities among Canadians.

In the summer of 2019, just ahead of that year’s general election, “Environment/climate change” topped the list of issues that respondents believed should get “the greatest attention” from the government with one-in-five voters or 20.1 per cent of Canadians listing that as number one. Health was second in 2019 at 14.6 followed by the economy at 9.7 per cent.

Still, in the 2020 poll, when respondents were asked specifically if “new efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be good for the Canadian economy,” 55 per cent said yes nationally — and a majority in all provinces, including Alberta, also said yes.

A subsequent question asked if “changes in Canadian behaviour to reduce the spread of COVID-19 will help or hinder Canada’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” On this one, 66 per cent said “help” and 12.3 per cent said “hinder.”

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But when presented with choices about the type of economy Canada ought to work towards, an “environmentally-friendly” economy — one of the prompted choices — was only a middle-of-the-pack choice. Respondents’ picks were for an economy with “a focus on quality of life”, a “healthy” economy, and an economy that focuses on “job creation.”

That finding of relatively lukewarm support for a ‘green recovery’ program may have contributed to the decision by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet to scale back what might have been more ambitious plans to ramp up economic recovery plans that focused on initiatives that would have de-emphasized the Canadian economy’s heavy dependence on fossil fuel production.

The internal polling also confirmed the Trudeau government’s view that the billions of dollars in deficits the government was running up even in June were not an issue for a healthy majority of Canadians. Conservatives, on the other hand, have repeatedly insisted that the federal government must present a plan to return the federal budget to balance.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Conservative MP and Liberal finance minister exchange on government’s COVID-19 economic response'
Coronavirus: Conservative MP and Liberal finance minister exchange on government’s COVID-19 economic response

In a question in which respondents were given a menu of items to choose from, just 26 per cent of respondents listed “federal deficit” as the top priority for the federal government versus. The most commonly chosen “top priorities” from the menu presented were:  vaccine development (58 per cent), securing long-term care homes (54 per cent) and securing the food supply (54 per cent).

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But in the first question of the poll, when respondents could list anything they wanted as an issue that the federal government should pay the most attention to, just 2.7 per cent said “debt/deficit.”

By comparison, 1.3 per cent, or 13 people, when asked to name anything on which the federal government should focus the greatest attention, said, “Ousting Trudeau and the Liberals from power.”

Read more: ‘Ambitious’ Liberal spending creates an opportunity for the Conservatives

The polling was done by Elemental Data Collection Inc. of Ottawa, which was awarded a one-year contract worth $1.5 million to do the weekly polling on behalf of the PCO. The PCO is responsible for choosing the questions and often solicits suggestions for the weekly questions from senior bureaucrats in other government departments.

The PCO polling program is prohibited by law from asking partisan questions such as vote intention or even who the respondent voted for in the last election. As a result, it is not possible to break out responses to individual questions by party preference.

The records released to Global News do not contain any information about the poll’s methodology, though a PCO spokesman said that the pollster has been hired to interview 1,000 people a week.

Read more: Investing in climate goals could play key role in coronavirus economic recovery

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Global News received nearly 100 pages of raw tabular data and, based on that, it seems clear that the sample size was 1,000 respondents and that the pollster measured the age, gender, income, education, ethnicity and other demographic data which is typically used by pollsters to weight their data so that it reflects Canada’s actual demographic data.

There was no information in the records released to Global News to say whether Elemental surveyed respondents through an online panel or via telephone. The previous PCO polling contractor, though, used telephone-based surveys.

No margins of error or other cautions about the accuracy of the polling data was contained in the records released to Global News.

The June poll also found that most Canadians were following health guidelines at the time to stay at home to avoid spreading or catching the coronavirus. More than 57 per cent told the pollster that they had not left home in the week before the poll except for walks, groceries or essential supplies. Just under 20 per cent said they were leaving home less than normal but still occassionally for work or social activities, and 7.4 per cent said they didn’t leave their home at all.

Some other data points from the poll, again, taken in mid-June:

  • 91 per cent said they were worried about the negative impact COVID-19 could have on the economy
  • 89 per cent said the federal government was doing a good job protecting the health of Canadians and 90 per cent said the government was doing well in communicating information about COVID-19; that majority was broadly consistent across all provinces, including Alberta and Saskatchewan
  • 40 per cent said the government should not reopen the Canada-U.S. border until U.S. cases approach zero while 25 per cent said the border should stay closed until a vaccine is available.

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