As premiers gather for their annual Council of the Federation meeting in Halifax this week, a new Institute for Research on Public Policy-Nanos Research survey suggests a lack of confidence in the ability of provincial and federal governments to solve some pressing issues.
The findings, to be published next week in Policy Options magazine, attempt to connect issues Canadians identified as their top priorities with the confidence they felt in federal and provincial governments' ability to find solutions.
Nik Nanos, the president of Nanos Research and the author behind the study, characterizes Canadians' views as a "bit of a limp handshake in terms of confidence" in government.
"When Canadians see their elected officials gathering, they expect them to do something. They expect them to accomplish something," he says.
"Canadians are more likely not to have confidence, and the sad thing is that confidence relates to many issues that are very very important to them. I think it’s almost a public policy despair," Nanos adds.
The findings don't necessarily bode well for the premiers on some fronts, although they do support the prioritization of at least two of the meeting's top agenda items.
Health care tops both public and premiers' agenda
When premiers shut the doors and sit down to talk amongst themselves on Thursday morning, the first thing up for discussion is a report from PEI Premier Robert Ghiz and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who have co-chaired a "health care innovation working group" to research new ways to deliver better health care with limited budgets.
Their work has considered things like applying "just in time" industrial management techniques, more common in manufacturing assembly lines, to delivering health care.
The Nanos study found health care topped Canadians' priorities by a comfortable margin, across Canada.
Top 5 issues, ranked by 'importance to Canada's future':
1. Keeping our health care system strong
2. (tie) Creating jobs, and
2. (tie) Investing in our education system
4. (tie) Ensuring safe communities, and
4. (tie) Balancing government budgets
Top 5 issues, ranked by confidence in governments' ability to find solutions:
1. Developing our natural resources
2. Protecting our borders
3. Ensuring safe communities
4. Encouraging research and development
5. Having trade policies that encourage investment
Source: IRPP-Nanos survey of 1,333 adult Canadians, using online survey conducted between July 5-9, 2012
In and of itself this is not new: health care often tops polls ranking Canadians' top issues. But when Nanos examined public confidence in governments' ability to address health-care issues, he found a lack of faith.
"Canadians are probably very happy that the premiers are engaged in health care and talking about it, but there’s a low level of confidence," he says.
Issues like health care are "very complex", Nanos says, noting the multiple stakeholders involved in the system. "As a result I think there's a higher level of skepticism in the provinces' ability to find solutions."
"If the premiers could advance the health care file in terms of a definitive position on what they see as the future of public health care in Canada, that would probably be a very good first step in trying to increase confidence," he suggests.
While health care ranked the highest among the 19 issues probed in the research, "creating jobs" ranked second among the public's priorities. "Investing in education" and "ensuring safe communities" round out the top tier of the public's concerns.
Budgets and bickering
At the meetings this week, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger is tasked with reporting back to his fellow premiers on economic matters, and in particular, the ongoing debate about what Canada's "fiscal framework" should look like in the future.
The provinces share a stake in maintaining or improving (depending on one's view) the fairness of Canada's system of federal transfer payments (to fund health care, education and social programs under provincial jurisdiction) and "equalization" payments (to share resources between currently-richer and currently-poorer, or "have" and "have not" provinces.)
Reports earlier this year unleashed a torrent of debate about what kinds of change should be contemplated, with some arguing that a large province like Ontario was short-changed under the current system.
In the IRPP-Nanos study, the public confidence in governments' ability to balance budgets was lower than for any other issue, despite the fact that it ranked close to the top of the pile in terms of the issue's importance to Canadians.
"I would have thought intuitively that it would have done better [in terms of Canadians' confidence]," Nanos says. "There’s probably a higher level of pessimism in terms of what governments can do to control spending and also to influence the economy compared to the past."
Nanos attributes some of this pessimism to international economic instability. But it could also reflect the track record of the public debate so far when it comes to federal-provincial funding.
"I think the perceptions for a lot of Canadians when they tune into the conference and the premiers start to talk about the fiscal framework, that will probably look more like bickering than solution finding. That’s probably the challenge for the meeting," Nanos believes.
Nanos sees more optimism in the public mood when it comes to the premiers' expected third focus, on energy: specifically, a discussion Alberta Premier Alison Redford lobbied hard to bring to the table about a national energy strategy.
In the Nanos poll, natural resources fared near the middle in terms of importance to the public, but shot to the top in terms of the public's confidence in a government's ability to act on it.
Of the premiers' top three agenda items, Nanos thinks, "the only one that people have confidence in terms of making a solution is really energy. And I think that’s because there’s been a lot of action on this file."
Put simply, Nanos thinks it's about money.
"There’s a perception that the resource economy is fuelling the [national] economy," Nanos says. "It has to do with what we see in the news and the narrative of prosperity created by the energy sector."
Still Nanos is cautious about seeing the confidence score as an endorsement of any particular resource policy decision. Confidence in the government's ability to act on a file is not the same thing as agreeing with the actions themselves.
"We shouldn’t consider this any kind of verdict in terms of the management of resources," Nanos warns.
Aboriginal "policy despair"
"Developing Canada's North" and "improving the quality of life for First Nations living on reserves" were the bottom two issues identified by Canadians in terms of the importance of the issue. When ranked by public confidence in governments, the First Nations issue in particular was second last.
Premiers kick off their talks with aboriginal leaders in Lunenburg, N.S., today before the main Council of the Federation talks begin on Thursday.
Nanos explains the relatively low ranking for aboriginal concerns as a "proximity effect."
"The further away Canadians are from a particular issue the less likely they are to say that it’s important," he explains. "For a majority of Canadians, it’s not in their face."
Nanos describes another challenge as well: "public policy despair" in the form of a recurring narrative of governments attempting to do something without delivering results, reflected in the equally low confidence score for the First Nations issue.
"You have to first deliver hope that a solution can be found before you start engaging Canadians," Nanos suggests, urging the premiers to "try to deliver something" that could lead to a broader solution down the road.
Newly re-elected national chief Shawn Atleo from the Assembly of First Nations is expected to continue his push for improved education for First Nations, something in which all provinces have jurisdictional expertise despite education being the federal government's responsibility on reserves.
Feds "cherry picking" easier issues
In general, the IRPP-Nanos survey found a greater "confidence deficit" (difference between Canadians who said they were confident in a government's ability versus not confident) for provincial governments versus the federal government.
But Nanos's "a-ha!" moment came when he mapped the relationship between importance and confidence for the 19 issues polled.
"When I looked at the cluster of issues at the top of the map [high importance and high confidence], they actually aligned with the priorities of the [Harper] Conservative government. And that included trade, border security, safe communities, [and] research and development," Nanos explains.
Nanos characterizes these issues as "transactional", whereas the issues clustered lower on the chart are "transformational." And he thinks the transactional issues are somewhat easier to deal with.
"There's a certain level of utility in this government: they’re focusing on issues that Canadians feel a difference can be made in. And they’re doing that in order to reap political dividends," he adds. "Obviously that’s very good politics but not good public policy from a long-term perspective because a lot of those tougher issues – like aboriginal issues, like social programs, like an aging population – they're much tougher, but still very important."
Nanos suggests "the Conservatives are cherry picking issues at the top that are easy to deliver on, that Canadians have a greater confidence in finding solutions."
Provincial premiers, on the other hand, hold jurisdiction over some of the tougher work near the bottom. "But if we don’t deal with these transformative issues, they’re going to bite us back in about ten or twenty years," the pollster believes.
Still, shorter-term priorities may be on the minds of some premiers. Particularly Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who is expected to call an election within days. Or B.C.'s Christy Clark, who must follow him to face voters within months. Ontario's Dalton McGuinty is managing a razor-thin "majority minority" through several difficult files, with an election threat never very far away.
Nanos characterizes this map as providing good direction to political leaders in terms of short and longer-term priorities.
"Let’s look at the top of the map: here are the things that we can make a difference on, that people have confidence that we can move the dial," he explains. "However, what are we going to do with things at the bottom of the map that we know are important? And if you’re a government that’s going to be governing for a long period of time you’ve got to look at those other issues that are a little more difficult because it will probably lead to trouble in the long term if you don’t."