As the federal Liberal cabinet holds its retreat in Vancouver, the 11 months since the last election might feel like 11 years. It’s important for them to take stock and think about their relationship with voters and what it would take to win a fourth straight mandate from Canadians when the next election comes, whenever that may be.
In 2015, 6.9 million Canadians marked a ballot for their local Liberal candidate. In 2019, that number dropped to six million. Two years later, the number dropped again, to 5.5 million. It is easy to imagine what happens to the Trudeau government if they shed another half a million votes.
According to our latest Abacus data polling, the Liberals and Conservatives are deadlocked nationally. The regional breaks in the data would produce the same result as last year’s if an election were held now.
Dissatisfaction with the government has been on the rise, but enthusiasm for the Conservative alternative is not growing. Winning another election would be challenging, but far from impossible.
There are some unknowns that could work for — or against — the Liberals’ chances. At the top of the list is the fact Conservatives are poised to choose a leader who may, to date, have generated no enthusiasm outside his party but knows how to deliver a criticism with edge.
To narrow in on what Liberals can do to improve their chances, they could do worse than to remember that one in four Canadians — seven million potential voters — say they would consider voting Liberal but aren’t committed to doing that as of now.
Recently, we did some research to better understand what is keeping those potential Liberal votes at arm’s length by providing a list of possible criticisms of the government and asking whether people agreed.
Here’s what we found among the accessible, but uncommitted Liberal voters:
- The top criticism is that the government has been spending too much money without thinking about the long-term implications.
- Almost as many people felt the government is “not focussed enough on everyday life.” Similar numbers think the prime minister is not very interested in the economy.
- Two-thirds would like to feel the government was more focussed on people in the centre than people on the far left.
- Sixty-one per cent sense a fatigue and lack of strategy on the part of the government, and as many feel the government is failing to manage basic functions and service delivery.
- Two-thirds think the government tends to look down on people and lecture. More than half see arrogance and too little listening to people.
- Seventy per cent feel the government hasn’t done much about climate change.
In short, it’s not one thing but a combination of dissatisfaction and annoyances, some more profound than others. The shape of these results speaks mostly to the chemistry of the relationship between these voters and their government.
Dissatisfaction with the Liberal government is increasing. But with enthusiasm for the Conservative alternative stalling, winning another election would be challenging but far from impossible, writes @abacusdataca chairman @bruceanderson. #cdnpoli
They aren’t sure they want to replace the Liberals; in fact, half approve of the government’s performance.
But they are looking for some changes in what the government focuses on and how it comes across. They want to feel the government better understands their lives, respects them and is focused on getting practical things done that will help them thrive.
As I read the data, there are a few imperatives for the Liberals to focus on to draw committed support from this large pool of uncommitted voters.
First, the economy is on everyone’s minds. This government can sometimes sound like the economy is somewhere in the middle of its priority list. As people struggle with day-to-day living costs, apprehension about rising interest rates and the possibility of a recession, there’s been little sense of urgency on offer for the last few months. The Liberals are more vulnerable if the ballot question comes down to economic and fiscal credibility, unless they show more intensity, focus and priority. They are not without a story to tell but seem to lack a constant and visible effort to drive and shape the conversation.
Second, any government that grows longer in the tooth starts to sound self-absorbed, self-important and disconnected. Ministers’ lives can look like a series of pleasant meetings with important people, cutting cheques, smiling and travelling. Incumbency starts to look like entitlement, unless there’s very deliberate effort to counter that drift.
(As a side note, this seems more challenging in the era of social media posts — politicians tweeting invocations to “do better” should pause and consider if there isn’t a better way to make the point, one that doesn’t subtly imply a superior-subordinate or holier-than-thou relationship. Twitter on its own doesn’t reach that many people, or undecided voters, but it reaches people who in turn reach almost everyone else, and the cumulative effect can be significant.)
Third, the work of government is about planning a better future but also helping deliver a better today. Pandemic-related strains on public services are grinding and frustrating. Buying lawn chairs for those forced to wait on slow passports undermines confidence that the government can get things done. Showing people that the efforts to hire, ease backlogs and make travel work better are resulting in measurable improvements goes a long way to reassuring people that the government takes daily frustrations seriously.
Some might read this polling data as a need for the Liberals to shift to the right, but that’s not what a closer look at the data reveals. True, people are looking for more attention on economics, but it’s not only right-of-centre voters who feel that way.
A different slicing of our data highlights the 30 per cent of voters who will consider voting either Liberal or NDP. Among them, spending and economic focus are also matters of broad concern. Most of this group shares the feeling that Ottawa could stand to focus more on people on the centre of the spectrum and less on the far left.
Another illustration that the data aren’t about a preference for a right-of-centre approach is the big flashing signal that these voters aren’t convinced enough is being done to combat climate change.
Liberal/NDP voters put this at the top of their list of concerns, but those who would consider either the Liberals or the Conservatives feel the same way. This is probably not a call for different targets or tools, but a reminder that many people may not know the details of what is being tried, but see worrying trends in fires, floods, and droughts. They certainly do not want to see any retreat in climate policy.
In sum, I think people are saying that values and virtue and the larger collective goals remain important, but so too is practicality. And they are signalling a distance has grown between them and their government – one that current communications efforts are not bridging successfully.
Justin Trudeau campaigned on “hope and hard work” in 2015, and as we move (hopefully) from pandemic anxiety through economic uncertainty, people sense that this is the time for more of the hard, perhaps unglamourous work of gutting it out, staying attentive to what isn’t working well enough trying to fix it, and talking about it in terms that people can relate to.
And when it comes to the medium and longer term, voters are looking for a government more inclined to listen to and act on ideas from those outside the government, especially those that will help ensure an economy in which everyone can thrive.
Bruce Anderson is currently the chairman of Abacus Data, one of Canada’s fastest growing and most accurate polling and market research companies. He is also chairman of Summa Communications and a partner in Spark Advocacy. He has provided counsel on communications and advertising to many organizations in the public and private sector, and has also advised politicians in the (defunct) Progressive Conservative Party and the Liberal Party federally.