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Do Canadians Really Like Stephen Harper?

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Last week marked the seven-year anniversary of the collapse of Paul Martin's minority government, triggered by a motion of no confidence. In the federal electoral campaign that followed, the Conservative Party -- under the slogan "Stand up for Canada" and making good use of their policy-a-day strategy -- managed to form a minority government, and started the tenure of Stephen Harper at 24 Sussex.

Since Harper took office, only three countries that are part of the G-8 have not enacted a shift in their governing party at least once: Canada, Germany and Russia. Despite this longevity, Harper has not established a phenomenal connection with a majority of Canadian voters. In the annual Angus Reid Public Opinion poll that looks at past and present prime ministers, Harper was regarded as the worst one since 1968 by one-in-four Canadians.

Still, the current Prime Minister has succeeded in creating a base of support, sustaining it, and growing it after every election. In a recent Angus Reid Public Opinion survey, 28 per cent of Conservative Party voters in 2011 say that Harper has performed "better" than they expected as Canada's head of government. As a matter of context, after two years under Barack Obama in the United States, only 20 per cent of Democrats felt the former Illinois Senator had been "better than advertised" at the White House.

Half of Canadians articulate the notion that Harper has performed "about the same" as they expected. And just as he maintains most people on the middle column on this question, the incumbent Prime Minister manages average marks on handling public safety (56 per cent), defence (51 per cent), national unity (48 per cent), global affairs (41 per cent) and Canada's reputation in the world (41 per cent). His tenure is criticized on the environment, the economy, taxation and health care, where more than two-in-five respondents think the state of affairs has worsened since the last Liberal federal government.

Two thirds of Canadians (68 per cent) think Harper, to borrow one of the terms used to describe him in his first run for office, harbors a "hidden agenda." This might seem like a remarkably high proportion of Canadians who feel their head of government is less than forthcoming, but the people of Quebec (78 per cent), Ontario (70 per cent), Alberta (68 per cent) and British Columbia (67 per cent) regard their own premiers as harboring "hidden agendas."

Out of all the things, good and bad, that have been said about Harper's real motivations, two appear to be sticking with Canadians: they are likely to assume that funding for arts will be cut in this majority government (68 per cent) and they also foresee an expansion of the role of private health care providers (66 per cent). One of the promises that Canadians want to see fulfilled -- Senate reform -- is regarded as unlikely by a majority of respondents.

An important factor to consider is that three-in-five respondents, most of whom are sweeping in their dislike of the Prime Minister, do not anticipate changes to existing regulations, or lack thereof, on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and capital punishment. Abortion remains an issue where Canadians are vastly ignorant of existing guidelines, but express little appetite for legislative action. Support for the continuation of same-sex marriage and the return of the death penalty has been strong in recent months.

Since he became Prime Minister, Harper has kept the base happy. Across the country, 28 per cent of Canadians say they liked him in opposition and like him as Prime Minister. Respondents in this group live mostly in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Harper has also "gained" seven per cent of Canadians who disliked him in opposition but like him now at 24 Sussex.

Conversely, almost half of Canadians dislike Harper, 37 per cent of them when he was in opposition and now that he is Prime Minister, and a further 11 per cent who liked him in opposition, but now dislike him at 24 Sussex.

Due to the intricacies of the parliamentary system, it is not necessary to have an approval rating of 50 per cent or more to be successful. Harper evidently remains a divisive character. Still, Canadians are more likely to look at his performance as "average."

It will take more than animosity to wrestle the base away from the Conservative Party. For now, as a large component of the population seems to be saying "not too bad", the sentiment for change is lackadaisical. New faces in the political spectrum, and fresh ideas from the opposition, may change that.

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