11/01/2013 10:19 EDT

Senate Scandal: Polls Suggest Things May Get A Lot Worse For Harper, Tories


If recent polls are any indication, the mess in the Senate could get a lot worse for Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party before it gets any better.

As Conservatives gather in Calgary for the party's convention, they must be breathing a sigh of relief that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has knocked Mike Duffy and the Senate scandal out of the headlines for the time being. But for how long?

A poll by Ipsos-Reid, taken after the first set of allegations from the former Conservative senator but before the latest that included payment for his legal fees, suggests that as many as 59 per cent of Canadians are watching the news unfold either somewhat or very closely. Supporters of the Conservative Party, as well as men and older Canadians (who also tend to also vote Conservative) are among the most attentive to the story.

And to those who suggest the scandal is of interest only to the parliamentary press gallery or the Canadian "elite," the poll showed no major difference in interest from high school dropouts to university graduates and everyone in between.

Fully two-thirds of Canadians and almost one-third of Tory voters said they disapproved of the prime minister's handling of the issue, and this before the latest bit of news emerged from the Red Chamber. There were similarly bad numbers in the Ipsos-Reid poll about whether Harper could be trusted that he knew nothing of the affair.

A poll by EKOS Research, which was in the field the day following Duffy's second explosive speech in the Senate, showed that Canadians were about twice as likely to believe Duffy's version of events as they were the prime minister. And almost two out of every five Canadians believed neither.

Whether or not this will have a serious effect on Tory support remains to be seen. Ipsos-Reid recorded a slight downtick for the Conservatives (also reported in polls by Forum Research taken before and after Duffy's first speech). EKOS showed stable numbers, but a significant drop in Harper's approval ratings.

By contrast, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's approval rating went through the roof, perhaps as a result of his strong performance in question period. Forum also suggested Mulcair's numbers were increasing, which was backed up by Ipsos-Reid's recorded jump in NDP support nationwide into a tie with Justin Trudeau's Liberals.

Where do the Conservatives go from here? There has been some suggestion that Friday’s speech to the convention will give the prime minister the opportunity to finally get ahead of the story, but there's been little indication Tories are prepared to change their strategy.

Canadians would support a public inquiry into the matter (81 per cent of them, including 68 per cent of Conservatives, according to Ipsos-Reid), and are supportive of the plan to boot Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau from the Senate entirely. They are only likely to see one of those things happen, though.

As to the future of the Senate itself, public opinion is turning against its survival. Ipsos-Reid found that 43 per cent support abolition and another 49 per cent reform, while EKOS found 54 per cent of Canadians in support of abolition (when not given the option of reform). In the end, the government may find that abolition will be easier to obtain than any kind of change.

But the story remains largely about the machinations of the PMO and Duffy’s bombshell allegations. Considering all of the obstacles to reforming or abolishing the Senate, the more likely casualty of this affair may instead be the Conservatives' hold on power.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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