November 30, 2023

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Quebec wants feds to focus on environment, for Alberta it’s the economy: PCO polling

Above all else, Quebecers want the federal government to do more about the environment.

For Albertans, it’s the economy.

British Columbians, when asked, would push Ottawa for more work on affordable housing.

And Atlantic Canadians are far more likely than those in other regions to say Ottawa should do more for the country’s senior citizens.

These are the findings in more than 1,000 pages of raw weekly polling data collected by the Privy Council Office (PCO) from May through August, released recently to Global News as a result of an Access to Information request.

The PCO polling program uses live-agent pollsters that contact survey respondents via landlines and cellphones. While there may be a range of questions each week, the first question is always the same: “Thinking about the issues presently facing Canada, which one do you feel should receive the greatest attention from the Government of Canada?”

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It is not a multiple choice question in which respondents are asked to choose an issue from a menu prepared by the government. Instead, respondents can say whatever they want. In any given week there might be 30 or 40 different issues that respondents name.

The results of PCO polling program are circulated to the most senior advisors in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, as well as to each member of the cabinet and every government deputy minister. The polls help guide the decisions this group makes.

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And likely to no one’s surprise, for much of 2022, the most common response through the 20 weeks of polling data obtained by Global News was, in order: healthcare, the environment, the economy, and inflation or the cost of living.  Those “top issues” would also be broadly consistent from similar polling done at the time and more recently by private sector polling firms like Ipsos, Leger, or Abacus Data.

But because of the quantity of polling — every week — and the number of people surveyed over that 20-week period — just over 19,000 individuals — the PCO polling program can detect some significant regional trends important for the national government and also for provincial politicians, particularly in Alberta and Manitoba where elections are scheduled to take place this year.

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Albertans, for example, were far more likely than respondents in the rest of the country to name “economy” as the top issue facing the country. Health and inflation were almost always right behind ‘economy’ as the most important issue for Albertans.

But compared to Canadians in other provinces, Albertans were much less likely to say the environment was the number one priority for the federal government. They were much more likely than Canadians in any other province to say that “government and political representation” was the most pressing issue in the country, a trend that Danielle Smith clearly tapped to win that province’s premiership.

In Quebec, by contrast, respondents week-in, week-out, listed “environment” as the number one issue for the federal government. Unlike Albertans, Quebecers almost never listed “government and political representation” as the top priority. Inflation also ranked much lower as a  priority for Quebecers than it did for voters in most other regions.

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Ontario respondents were about as likely to list economy or health care as the number one issue for the federal government in any of the 20 weekly polls.

While respondents in B.C. listed health, environment and the economy as top issues all through that polling period. “Affordable housing” was the fourth most frequent issue cited by voters there and named more often as a top issue than respondents in other parts of Canada. Not surprisingly then, one of the first things David Eby did when he took over as premier from John Horgan, was to institute some new housing policies and appoint B.C.’s first minister of housing.

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In Atlantic Canada, health care was easily the dominant top issue through the polling period.  But Atlantic Canadians were much more likely than respondents anywhere else in the country list seniors’ issues as a top priority for the federal government.

In addition to providing information about the issues Canadians think are most important for the federal government to attend to, the open-ended nature of that first question can also provide some insight as to what issues are not top-of-mind in the country, findings which may be also be important for a cabinet trying to set policy and budget priorities.

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For example, when asked what was the “one issue” that should receive “the greatest attention” from Ottawa, only about 1.5 per cent of respondents each week said “Indigenous issues.”

“Debt or deficit”, “taxes”, and “crime” had a similar response rate of between 1 and 1.5 per cent each week when Canadians are asked to name the most important issue government should tackle.

And while COVID-19 was the number one issue in most polls the PCO conducted in 2021, by 2022 that issue slid off the public’s radar through the spring and summer. Through the 20 weeks of polling data, an average of just 3.2 per cent of all respondents said dealing with COVID-19 was the most important issue facing the federal government.

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By law, public opinion research funded from government revenues, such as the PCO polling program, cannot ask questions about someone’s vote intention or political preference.

However, respondents can say anything they want in reply to the first open-ended question and a handful every week — about 1.7 per cent on average — responded by saying “ousting Trudeau/the Liberals from power” is the one issue that should receive the greatest attention from the federal government.

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