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COMMENTARY: Is Trudeau setting himself up to fail by doubling down on vaccine promises?

Click to play video 'How prepared are provinces to administer COVID-19 vaccine?' How prepared are provinces to administer COVID-19 vaccine?
There's a patchwork of COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans across Canada, as provinces wait for more doses to be delivered. – Feb 18, 2021

Most things in life are not assessed by their absolute value but rather how they measure against expectations. A political leader’s fortunes on the election trail do not necessarily rise or fall simply because they won or lost the debate, but rather how they performed against expectations (see: Jack Layton).

Similarly, a stock’s performance on the TSX doesn’t rise or fall on earnings day because the company made or lost money, but because a company performs better or worse than analysts expected. It is this misalignment that causes movement in attitudes and behaviours.

When it comes to the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set the bar high. He has reasserted his pledge to vaccinate every Canadian who wants to be inoculated by the end of September, stating he remains “very confident” in his ability to get the job done.

Read more: Feds unveil accelerated rollout schedule following fresh coronavirus vaccine deals

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But Canadians are learning the hard way that “vaccines don’t necessarily equal vaccinations,” as Trudeau put it. There is growing skepticism among Canadians that he will be able to meet his promise.

Canadians were let down when they learned earlier along in the process that Canada does not have domestic production capabilities for a COVID-19 vaccine. In December of last year, nine in 10 thought it was a no-brainer that Canada should have its own vaccine production capabilities. This revelation sowed the first seed of doubt, with three-quarters admitting their worry that the public distribution of a vaccine in Canada could be too slow to stem the spread of COVID-19.

In January, 28 per cent of Canadians thought the vaccine would not be available to them before the end of September. Reading the writing on the wall, and largely ignoring the comforting reassurances from the prime minister, 39 per cent of Canadians now believe they will not be offered a vaccine before the end of September. In fact, 26 per cent don’t think they’ll have the opportunity to be vaccinated at any point this year. Nearly half now say the vaccine rollout is going slower than they expected, including 42 per cent of Liberal voters.

Click to play video '71 % of Canadians ‘angry’ over government’s performance on COVID-19 vaccine rollout, says IPSOS poll' 71 % of Canadians ‘angry’ over government’s performance on COVID-19 vaccine rollout, says IPSOS poll
71 % of Canadians ‘angry’ over government’s performance on COVID-19 vaccine rollout, says IPSOS poll – Feb 19, 2021

Is the prime minister setting himself up for failure? Is it politically expedient for him to be reinforcing such high expectations when the chance of meeting those expectations is reduced with each mounting delay? Despite affording the prime minister the benefit of the doubt throughout the pandemic and rewarding him with strong approval ratings along the way, a majority now lacks confidence that Canada will meet its stated vaccination goals.

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Moreover, the prime minister’s approval ratings have dropped by six points in the last month, and the Liberal lead over the Tories has narrowed to a measly three points – a statistical tie in the national popular vote. The misalignment between the expectations Trudeau is setting and the reality in which Canadians are living is beginning to impact how Canadians feel about the incumbent government.

Regardless of what the prime minister attests, Canadians have already begun to reassess what the year ahead looks like for them, factoring in the assumption that Canada will not be vaccinated by September.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine tracker — How many Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19?

In short, for Canadians, 2021 is increasingly becoming a write-off, much like 2020 was. A shrinking proportion say they’ll travel internationally in 2021, that they’ll be able to attend gatherings such as concerts or festivals, or that they’ll be able to return to pre-COVID levels of spending and re-engagement with the economy in a normal way.

The issue here is that the prime minister’s normal way of communicating, which is to stick to his message track regardless of the questions or any objections, works well enough when people are only peripherally interested in the topic. It’s very different now. Canadians are watching their federal government’s performance on vaccines like hawks and are beginning to judge it harshly.

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Or perhaps the prime minister is simply hoping that the mood of Canadians will warm with the spring temperatures.

Darrell Bricker is CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs and the author of NEXT: Where to Live, What to Buy, and Who Will Lead Canada’s Future (Harper Collins, 2020). Sean Simpson is vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs.