In the face of challenges in key policy areas such as health care and the environment, public expectations of gov- ernment are high. Canadians, however, are less sure than they were in past years that their expectations will be met.
This is the striking impression that emerges from a large national public opinion survey conducted annually by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC). The survey, Portraits of Canada, tracks the ways in which Canadians see themselves, their governments and their country. Its purpose is not to follow the rising or falling for- tunes of political parties. Instead, it offers a more reflective look at the evolution in public thinking about the chal- lenges that Canada faces, the performance of its political institutions and the state of relations among its peoples.
The survey was conducted in early October, a time when the debate on the merits of the Kyoto Protocol was in full swing. While the economists and ecologists clashed, 78 per- cent of Canadians agreed that Canada should formally ratify the protocol, while only 18 percent disagreed. Only in Alberta did the public dissent. There, 45 percent agreed that Canada should ratify, while 49 percent disagreed. Agreement in the other areas of the country ranged from a high of 85 percent in Atlantic Canada to a low of 68 percent in Saskatchewan.
Why have the opponents of the Kyoto Protocol had such difficulty in shaking the public’s commitment to ratification? The survey provides some clues.
First, economic confidence has rebounded since it dipped in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. In October 2002, only 17 percent of Canadians expected the economy to become weaker in the next few years, compared with 34 percent who felt this way a year ago. Currently, 49 percent expect the economy to stay about the same, and 30 percent say the economy will become stronger. This latter figure is up 11 points since last year.
In the absence of pessimism about the economy, Canadians have become more inclined to say that environ- mental concerns should take priority over economic growth. Fifty-five percent hold this view today, an increase of 9 percent since the recession year of 1993.
A mood of relative self-confidence also leads Canadians to believe that they will be able to innovate in the face of chance. Rather than fearing the impact of Kyoto, Canadians are opti- mistic. Specifically, they are more likely to think that ratifica- tion will have a positive rather than a negative impact on jobs. Thirty-eight percent say that if Kyoto is ratified, on the whole, jobs will be created, 30 percent say that ratification will not have any effect on jobs one way or another, and only 26 per- cent say that, on the whole, jobs would be lost. In Alberta, however, 60 percent expect a net job loss.
Another indicator of this willingness to take on change is the fact that 63 percent of Canadians support the idea of Canada-US free trade for labour, meaning that workers could move freely between the two countries in search of employment.
A second factor informing views about Kyoto is the relatively high level of confidence that Canadians have in leaders of environmental groups. In fact, of the six types of leaders mentioned in the survey, environmental leaders fared the best: 69 percent of Canadians said they had a great deal or some confidence in them.
Business leaders were a close second at 62 percent, but political leaders were well behind with 42 percent.
Also important is the sense, shared by many, that the state of the environment is worsening. Nationally, 48 percent of Canadians think pollution is becoming more of a problem in their community today, compared with 10 percent who say it is less of a problem, and 40 percent who say that things have stayed about the same. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, 58 percent say pollution in their community is getting worse.
The environment is not the only issue on people’s minds. Many Canadians are also concerned about poverty and homelessness. Fortyfive percent say this problem is getting worse, compared with 8 percent who say it is getting better, and 44 percent who say it is staying the same. This is perhaps one reason why there is increasing public support for spending government surpluses on social programs as opposed to tax cuts or debt repayment. Thirty-eight percent say governments should use surpluses to put more money into social programs””a six-point increase since 2000. Thirty-four percent favour repaying the debt””a five-point drop in the same period. Twenty-seven percent prefer tax cuts, vir- tually the same proportion as in previous years. Whereas a plurality favoured debt repayment in 2000, a plurality now favours spending the sur- plus on social programs.
The social program that Canadians value most, of course, is health care. On the eve of the final report of the Romanow Commission, a major- ity of Canadians (52 percent) remained convinced that the best way for governments to deal with the rising cost of health care is to significantly increase their spending, as opposed to limiting services (an option supported by only 8 percent) or allowing the private sector to provide some services to peo- ple who can afford to pay (38 percent).
This national result, however, masks an important difference of opinion in the country. In Quebec, 49 percent now say that the best way to deal with the rising costs of health care is to allow the private sector to provide some services to people who can afford to pay. This is an 11- point jump from a year ago. Outside Quebec, however, the figure this year is 33 percent, up only 2 percent from 2001. Thus, while there was only a seven-point gap between the Quebecers and other Canadians on this choice a year ago, there is now a 16-point gap.
Fifty-seven percent of Canadians outside Quebec want governments to significantly increase their health-care spending, compared with 39 percent of Quebecers.
This difference of opinion, while important, does not necessarily mean that there is a divergence in the thinking of Canadians and Quebecers regarding fundamental social values. Quebecers are no less committed to the princi- ples that underpin public health care. They are, however, more worried about their health-care system and more eager to experiment with poli- cies that promise to relieve pressure on it. Most importantly, they have before them a credible political party (the ADQ) that has made the expansion of private sector health care one of the central elements of its platform.
To sum up, against the background of a mood of relative confidence about the economy, a majority of Canadians want the Kyoto Protocol ratified, a growing number favour spending the surplus on social programs, and a majority across the country as a whole favour raising spending on health care as opposed to privatization. Unfortunately, fewer Canadians than before are confident that their governments will be able to live up to these expectations.
Action in these areas requires cooperation between federal and provincial governments. Yet the number of Canadians who say that the two levels of government have been working well together is 13 points lower today than it was in 1998, the last year in which the questions was asked (the current figure is 50 percent, down from 63 percent).
Similarly, when asked which level of gov- ernment Canadians trust more to protect the programs they care about, the most likely response this year is ”œneither,” whereas two years ago, it was ”œboth governments equally.”
Currently, 34 percent trust neither government, up 14 points since 2000. Notably, in 2000, the survey was conducted just after the first minis- ters came to an agreement to increase health- care funding, which explains why there was an increase that year in the number saying they trusted both levels of government to protect cherished programs.
There are important provincial variations in responses to this question. Quebecers are more likely than average to say they trust both the federal government and their provincial gov- ernment equally. Albertans are much more likely to trust their provincial government. British Columbians stand out as the most frustrated with government as a whole, with 51 percent saying they trust neither the feds nor the government in Victoria.
Many Canadians are also increasingly dissatisfied with the status of their province within confederation. In fact, with the exceptions of Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick, majori- ties in all provinces think that their province is not treated with the respect that it deserves in Canada. The strongest feelings are in the eastern- most and western-most provinces. Only 30 per- cent of British Columbians, 22 percent of Saskatchewan residents and 16 percent of Newfoundlanders say their province is treated with the respect it deserves in Canada. In con- trast, 76 percent of Ontarians say their province is treated with the respect it deserves.
Most importantly, in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, the percent- age saying their province is treated with respect is not only very low, it is declining. It is down seven points in BC and Newfoundland since last year and down 11 points in Saskatchewan.
A final indicator of the frustrations that Canadians have with government is their atti- tudes towards political leaders and parties. As mentioned, only a minority of Canadians say they have confidence in their political leaders (although confidence is not as low as it was in the early 1990s, a time of economic recession and constitutional crisis). What’s more, two- thirds say that the traditional political parties are more disconnected from the concerns of average voters today than they used to be.
All this dramatically shifts the portrait that the survey paints of the mood of Canadians in 2002. The relative confidence that they have in the economy and in their own abilities to adapt to change stands in contrast with the lower lev- els of confidence they have in their political leaders and institutions. It appears that there is a widening gap between what citizens expect from government and what they see govern- ment delivering.
Arguably, then, the survey provides some warning signs that all governments would do well take into account as they formulate their responses to the key issues of the day. The Kyoto Protocol and the Romanow Commission report, among many other items, pose challenges to the federal and provincial governments, but they also provide them with an opportunity to demonstrate that they can in fact be trusted to work cooperatively together to deliver the results that Canadians seek. Whether or not they choose to make the most of this opportu- nity will play a large part in determining if citi- zens’ frustration with government will continue to grow.
Portraits of Canada is a CRIC survey conducted by Environics Research Group and CROP. 2,939 adult Canadians were surveyed by telephone between September 27 and October 16, 2002. Results of a survey of this size can be considered accurate to within plus or minus 1.8 percent, nineteen times out of twenty. The complete survey can be found on CRIC’s website: www.cric.ca