The health care guarantee is by far the most popular item on the Harper government’s top five priorities list. In a national survey by SES Research for Policy Options, 46.9 percent of Canadians said the health care guar- antee was the most important of the five priorities to them personally, nearly three times as many as identified cleaning up government as the top priority at 16.8 percent (question 1). Cutting the GST came in third at 14.7 percent, support for child care fourth at 10.4 percent and the crime package fifth at 9.5 percent.
The SES national telephone survey of 1,006 Canadians, conducted May 4 to May 9, has a margin of accuracy of 3.1 percent, plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.
On a regional basis, the health care guarantee as the most important priority jumps to 62.2 percent in Quebec, while it stands at 46.6 percent in the Atlantic, 42.9 percent in Ontario and 39.4 percent in the West.
The health care guarantee would allow patients to receive elective surgeries on their public health insurance, outside their province and even outside the system if the procedures are not available within an agreed-upon waiting time. The guarantee will have to be negotiated between fed- eral and provincial health ministers.
The clear top ranking of the health care guarantee is surprising in the sense that it has been the least discussed of the government’s top five priorities. All the others have been funded in the May 2 budget.
Even though the government has initially focused on the other four priorities, the health care guarantee still tops the list as the most important priority for Canadians. In a way, the support for the health care guarantee resonates strongly because of the branding of the issue. It’s health care, and it’s guaranteed. Of course it has strong support. But these levels of support also increase the pressure on the Harper government to deliver on this promise.
If Harper is able to deliver on the promise of the health care guarantee, as well as the other four priorities, he will be able to return to the voters and say he delivered the goods. It’s the dif- ference between a prime minister with a tightly focused agenda and the comparatively unfocused approach of his predecessor.
The remainder of the SES-Policy Options survey asked vot- ers for their impressions of the Federal Accountability Act, the first piece of legislation introduced by the Harper government, and its signature bill for cleaning up the way Ottawa does business.
We asked Canadians whether they thought it represented a major or minor change, or no change at all (question 3). More than three Canadians in four agreed it represent- ed some change: 28.3 percent said it meant major change, and 48.5 per- cent said it meant minor change. Only 17.8 percent thought it meant no change.
Again, the numbers were most striking in Quebec, where 40.3 percent thought the Accountability Act meant major change, and 39.4 percent said it meant some change.
This is not surprising. Quebec is the neighbourhood where the spon- sorship wrongdoings occurred. It is no surprise that Quebecers support meas- ures to make sure it doesn’t happen again in their backyard.
When SES asked Canadians about the Act’s long-term impact on how the government works, a strong majority of voters thought it would be positive (29.1 percent) or somewhat positive (32.9 percent), as against only 2.6 per- cent who thought it would prove to be somewhat negative and only 5.4 per- cent who thought it would be outright negative (question 4). Stated another way, fewer than one Canadian in ten (8 percent) thought the accountability package will have a negative long-term impact. One voter in four, 25.4 percent, thought its effects would be neutral.
Once again, support is highest in Quebec, scene of the sponsorship scandal. In Quebec, 68.4 percent think the Accountability Act’s effect will be positive or somewhat positive, against a national average of 61.0 percent who see positive or somewhat positive impact.
Being well supported in Quebec, the Accountability Act could prove to be an important building block for Prime Minister Harper in his bid to graduate from a minority in this House to a majority in the next one.
The road to that majority leads through Quebec. In our ballot ques- tion in the same polling period, the national percentages of party support were: Conservatives 38, Liberals 28, NDP 19, Bloc Québécois 9, Green Party 6. In a regional breakout in Quebec, the Bloc was at 37, the Conservatives at 35, the Liberals at 19 and the NDP at 13. Liberal support in Quebec is large- ly clustered in their anglophone-allo- phone stronghold on the island of Montreal. Outside the Montreal region, a battleground of 50 seats, the Liberals are, for the moment at least, out of what has become a two-party contest between the Bloc and the Conservatives.
Next, SES asked Canadians about their views on two of the most controversial elements of the Accountability Act, the five-year cooling-off period for former officials in lobbying government and the fur- ther restrictions on donations in election and leadership campaigns.
When we asked which period of time was a reasonable restraint on for- mer officials, rotating from the existing one-year ban to the proposed five-year prohibition, support was strongest for the five-year cooling-off period at 31.3 percent, while the current one-year ban garnered 19.7 percent (question 5). Support for a two-year ban was at 18.3 percent, for three years at 22 percent and for four years at only 2.8 percent. Perhaps significantly, cumulative sup- port for a cooling-off period of one to three years is at 60 percent, twice the level of support for the more severe five-year ban on lobbying activity by former officials.
On the issue of campaign finance reform, 55.9 percent of respondents agreed that restricting donations reduces external influences on our political system, while only 30.0 per- cent thought such restrictions infringe on our freedoms to support political causes (question 6).
Finally, SES asked Canadians how likely the new Conservative gov- ernment was to keep its promises, compared with the previous Liberal government. Overall, 41.3 percent of Canadians thought the Conservatives more likely to keep their promises, 34.1 percent as likely and 20.3 percent less likely (question 7).
Again, the numbers were highest in Quebec, where 52.2 percent thought the Harper government more likely to keep its promises, 32.1 per- cent as likely and only 10.2 percent less likely. This is a leading indicator of approval and a positive harbinger for Prime Minister Harper in his bid to grow to a majority at the next election.
Although the change in electoral support since the election still remains within the margin of accuracy, the Conservatives are well positioned with their five priorities. They are already on their way to delivering on cutting the GST, cleaning up government, launch- ing their child care initiative and mov- ing their crime package forward. However, among the five core Harper priorities the health care guarantee clear- ly stands out as the biggest and likely the toughest issue. Success or failure in deliv- ering the health care guarantee may indeed show Canadians the true mettle of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.