OTTAWA - The Harper government appears to be getting a free pass from Canadians for backtracking on a key campaign promise to balance the federal budget by 2014.
The most recent survey by The Canadian Press-Harris Decima suggests that not only are Canadians not surprised the campaign pledge would not be fulfilled, most agree that it shouldn't.
Overall, about 62 per cent of respondents to the survey taken earlier this month said they believed the government should not take extraordinary steps to try to meet the 2014 deadline.
The result is understandable given that Canadians are still largely divided on the issue of the most appropriate policy direction the government should take in the next year.
A slight majority of those surveyed — 53 per cent — said they believed Ottawa should control spending, while 43 per cent said the government should continue spending to create jobs. That's almost a reverse of the results to an identical question asked in October.
"Canadians are clearly of two minds (on the issue)," said Doug Anderson, senior vice president of Harris Decima.
"So, are they upset another year or two is being added to the balanced budget timeline? No. They are not saying don't balance it, they are saying the idea of taking at least four years is most appropriate."
The poll of 1,000 adult Canadians was conducted Nov. 10-13, and is considered accurate to within 3.1 points up or down, 19 times in 20.
The timing of the survey is significant because it comes a few days after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty released his fall economic update, warning that Canada faces a more sluggish recovery than previously thought, given the risks to the global outlook.
As a result, the update largely took a balanced budget in the fiscal year 2014-15 off the table, pencilling in 2015-16 as the new goal.
The extended timeline made headlines, but Canadians took the announcement in stride. According to the poll results, 87 per cent said they were not surprised by the change.
And 63 per cent agreed with Flaherty that "instability of the international economy" was more to blame for the missed deadline than any policies taken by the government. Even majorities among opposition NDP and Liberal supporters said the government is not primarily to blame.
"Canadians appear to agree that the global economic turmoil is a clear and valid reason for reducing the urgency of tackling the deficit, and their preferred timeline tends to match the one targeted by the federal government," Anderson said.
Previous polling suggests that Canadians trust the Conservatives more than any other party to manage the economy during this period of uncertainty and elevated risk.
The survey did show a degree of partisan division in some of the questions, but not as strongly as might be supposed, noted Anderson.
On the question of stimulus versus cost-cutting, a clear majority of Conservatives said they favoured the spending-restraint option. But even so, NDP and Liberal supporters were not in radical disagreement.
Among New Democrats, 48 per cent said they favoured more spending as opposed to 47 per cent for restraints; while among Liberals, the split was 50 per cent to 44 per cent favouring stimulus measures.