Low marks for the government

PAUL GESSELL January 5 1987

Low marks for the government

PAUL GESSELL January 5 1987

Low marks for the government


Bruce Brown, a respondent in the third annual Maclean's/ Decima Poll, says that he believes Brian Mulroney's Conservatives may have already lost the next federal election. The 51-year-old maintenance supervisor in a Winnipeg hospital says that he used to trust Mulroney. But Brown adds that his admiration has faded. The turning point came on Oct. 31, when the Mulroney government defied some of its own advisers, including military officials, and awarded a billion-dollar contract for the maintenance of CF-18 fighter jets to Canadair Ltd. of Montreal instead of to a lower bidder, Bristol Aerospace Ltd. of Winnipeg. Suddenly, even once-loyal Conservatives in the West began complaining about the federal government. “There’s going to be a lot of major changes in the next election,” Brown predicted. “People are angry.”

Indeed, the poll—carried out in early November as the furore over the CF-18 contract raged—shows that displeasure with Mulroney is growing and that a majority of Canadians believe the overall performance of the government since the 1984 election has been at best mediocre. Forty-two per cent of the poll respondents said that they were dissatisfied with Mulroney’s record—an increase of nine percentage points since The Maclean''s/Decima Poll of a year earlier—while only 30 per cent declared themselves satisfied. At the same time, the latest poll showed that skepticism over the Prime Minister’s trustworthiness persisted at a high level. Analysis of the poll results indicated that the Prime Minister’s staunchest supporters tend to be young, francophone and from his native Quebec. His harshest critics are elderly, English-speaking Canadians in general and residents of economically depressed British Columbia in particular.

The Mulroney government as a whole fared only a little better when poll respondents were asked to grade it. Only 14 per cent of those polled were sufficiently disillusioned to award the government’s overall performance an F. Still, 68 per cent rated the government with a C or D, while only 17 per cent gave the Tories an A or B. The biggest fans of the government tend to be young Canadians, people living in rural areas and in the Atlantic provinces. Its harshest critics are pensioners, city dwellers and British Columbians.

What the poll results broadly indicate, noted Bruce Anderson, Decima’s vice-president of public affairs research, is that Canadians are “less than happy but also less than agitated. If, as conventional wisdom holds, a midterm ebb in public impressions of a government is normal and in fact what we are witnessing, then the depths of this ebb are not disastrous for the government.” In other words, there is still time for the Mulroney government to rescue its political future in time for the next federal election, which is expected in 1988 or 1989. The Maclean's/ Decima Poll confirmed the findings of recent public opinion polls showing that the Tories are indeed in trouble. Despite internecine battles within the Liberal party over John Turner’s leadership, the Conservatives have been trailing the Liberals nationally in opinion polls for several months. At the same time, the New Democratic Party has attained historic highs in the polls, setting up the possibility of a three-way race in many areas in the next election.

For the most part, political scientists told Maclean's that the government’s current low standing was the result of inexperience, bad judgment, a lack of vision and unreasonably high expectations on the part of Canadians who gave the Tories a landslide election victory 28 months ago. Those experts tended to agree that the Conservatives must soon find ways to regain public favor, or face the prospect of electoral defeat. The Mulroney government, said Paul Tennant, associate professor of political science at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia, are “in very serious trouble. Every time they try to do something in a major way, it seems to blow back in their faces.”

When respondents to The Maclean's/Decima Poll were asked to rate the government’s performance, the government did not win high marks in any of the five key areas, ranging from its relationship with the United States to its accomplishments in the economic arena. That did not surprise Ian Stewart, professor of political science at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. “I would think,” said Stewart, “that on virtually every one of those categories the government is likely to go down in the future. It’s difficult to see any positive signal for the Tories over the next little while.”

In the poll, respondents awarded the lowest grades of all for the government’s ability to spend tax dollars wisely, with only 16 per cent awarding an A or a B. There were 52 per cent of the respondents who gave Ottawa a D or an F, and 30 per cent a C. The government got only slightly better marks—18 per cent gave an A or a B— when the question was whether the Conservatives are making government work more efficiently. Forty per cent awarded a C, while 41 per cent gave the government a D or an F.

The government fared better when respondents were asked to rate its ability to manage relations with the United States. Twenty-six per cent of respondents gave the government an A or a B and 34 per cent a C, while 21 per cent awarded a D and 19 per cent marked the government a failure in managing relations with Washington. According to Decima’s Anderson, one factor reflected in those results is “the still-strong support in principle that Canadians voice for the enhanced trade initiative with the United States, even though concerns on that front have grown substantially during the year.”

Rating Brian Mulroney’s performance as Prime Minister:

Grading the federal government’s overall performance, A to D and F for failure:

Poll percentages on this and following pages have been rounded and may exclude the “no option’’ and neutral categories. Totals may not add up to 100 per cent.

When they were asked whether the Mulroney government is helping to improve Canada’s economy, almost onequarter (24 per cent) gave the government an A or a B, 38 per cent rated the government at C and 22 per cent at D, while 16 per cent felt that the efforts deserved an F.

Reflecting the preponderance of C grades in the government’s report card, Perry Jankowski, a 28-year-old poll respondent in Marshall, Sask., told Maclean's that the Mulroney government is generally doing “an adequate job.” Jankowski is an unemployed drilling technician, and he cited unemployment as the country’s biggest problem. But he said that he believes the public is judging Mulroney too harshly and too swiftly. Said Jankowski: “Mulroney needs time to get his point of view across. They didn’t give Joe Clark enough time and he deserved more of a chance.”

But that willingness to give Mulroney the benefit of the doubt was not shared by most poll respondents, who rated the Prime Minister’s overall performance harshly. For Mulroney, who led his party in September, 1984, to a landslide parliamentary majority, the fall from grace has been dramatic. Only 30 per cent of respondents said that they were satisfied with his performance, compared with 37 per cent in 1985, while the percentage of respondents who were dissatisfied went to 42 per cent from 33. Fewer than one in three respondents—roughly the same proportion as in the poll taken in 1985—said that they were neutral on the Prime Minister’s overall performance. When respondents were asked to rate Mulroney’s performance, compared with that of his predecessors, in improving the economy and creating jobs, 24 per cent said that he is doing a better job, while the same percentage felt that he is doing worse and 52 per cent said that he is doing about the same.

Stephen Page, a political scientist from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said that he blamed Mulroney’s ratings on his inability to deliver the changes that the electorate expected would take place under a Conservative government. Said Page: “When a guy gets a landslide victory and everybody’s hopes are raised unrealistically for unrealistic reasons, it seems to me that, inevitably, he’s got to crash.”

The most conspicuous drop in satisfaction with Mulroney’s performance was in the area of his perceived ability to help “the country work together.” Twenty-five per cent of respondents felt that Mulroney is doing a worse job than previous prime ministers, compared with only 15 per cent who said the same thing a year ago. The percentage of those who thought that he has done a better job dropped to 24 from 31. A bare majority—51 per cent this year and 52 per cent last year—said he is doing about the same job as his predecessors. That was reflected in the assessment of Louis Lefrançois, 24, a rock-music composer and singer from Quebec City. He rated the Mulroney government’s overall performance at a C. Said Lefrançois, who goes by the stage name Kaiser Fist: “The names of the parties are different, but there’s not a lot of difference between the ideas. Brian Mulroney or Pierre Trudeau, it’s all the same to me.”

For the most part, older Canadians were tougher in their judgments of the Mulroney government. In rating Mulroney’s efforts to make the country work together, almost 42 per cent of the Canadians over 65 who were polled said that Mulroney is doing a worse job in that area than did his predecessors, compared with the 25 per cent in the sample at large. Conversely, the younger the respondents, the more willing they were to give credit to the Prime Minister. Only 18 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 24 said that Mulroney was doing a worse job than his predecessors in office.

The calls that a PM should take

Some Canadians believe that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has mixedup priorities when taking telephone calls in his office. Respondents to The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll were presented with a hypothetical situation in which four people—a foreign leader, a business leader, an “important” journalist and a religious leadertelephoned the Prime Minister simultaneously. In two questions, the respondents were asked whose call Mulroney should take first, and then whose call they thought he would take first.

The results, in percentages:

Clearly, the respondents felt that Mulroney pays more attention to business leaders and journalists than he should—and less to foreign and religious leaders. And there were different priorities among the respondents. People 65 and over, those with less education and those in low-income groups thought calls from religious and business leaders were more important than did younger, better educated and more affluent respondents.

Those responses said a good deal about Canadians’ notions of Brian Mulroney’s scale of values. But what about the Prime Minister’s actual telephone habits? While staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office refused to discuss the matter in any detail, they were willing to answer one question. When asked who Mulroney talked to most on the telephone, two PMO staffers unhesitatingly gave the same answer: “Mila.”

Better-off Canadians also tended to give Mulroney higher marks.

Among people earning $50,000 or more, 30 per cent said that Mulroney was doing a better job, while only 17 per cent said that he was doing a worse job. But among Canadians earning under $10,000, only 23 per cent said that he was doing a better job than his predecessors, while 29 per cent claimed that he was doing a worse job. Regionally, Mulroney’s ratings got better the farther east the pollsters moved. While only about 17 per cent of British Columbians surveyed said that Mulroney was doing a better job than his predecessors, 29 per cent of those polled in the four Atlantic provinces declared that he was doing a good job.

For the most part, the variations in support for Mulroney appear to reflect reactions to his government’s earlier political and economic decisions. Many elderly Canadians, and especially widows, criticized the Prime Minister in 1985 when the government tried to remove some of the protection against inflation built into old-age pensions.

On the other hand, generous tax breaks, including a $500,000 once-in-alifetime exemption from the tax on capital gains, endeared Mulroney to well-to-do Canadians. Commentators have suggested that the reasons for Mulroney’s unpopularity in British Columbia include slumping commodity prices and the fact that the province has not fully recovered from the recession of the early 1980s. As well, British Columbia has traditionally contained significant pockets of NDP supporters, and Liberal Leader John Turner, the MP for Vancouver-Quadra, has been working to expand support for his party in the province.

Credibility has long been an issue for Mulroney, and the latest poll suggests that Canadians still find it difficult to believe what the Prime Minister tells them. More than one-third—37 per cent—of the poll respondents said that Mulroney is less open and straightforward with the public than were his predecessors, while 44 per cent say he has about the same credibility, and 19 per cent think he has more.

One respondent, Edward Lisle, a 32-yearold Calgary geologist, said that he had high hopes for Mulroney’s Conservatives two years ago. But Lisle now gives the government no more than a “D plus” for its efforts, and he said that he suspects Mulroney is more interested in being re-elected than in governing. “Last year, there was still the honeymoon,” added Lisle. “But the award of the contract to Canadair rather than Bristol was very disappointing.” For Lisle and many other Canadians, the honeymoon is definitely over. What remains to be decided at the next election is whether issues such as the CF-18 controversy are merely lovers’ quarrels, or harbingers of an impending divorce.