Canadians may not love the $29.4 billion in deficit spending announced in Tuesday's federal budget, but they can live with it, are broadly supportive of many of the measures included in the budget, and would pass it if they were MPs, a new poll suggests.
The survey, conducted by Abacus Data shortly after the budget was tabled and commissioned by EY, found that Canadians are generally looking on the budget favourably, if not enthusiastically.
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Among those who think the budget is different from those budgets tabled during Stephen Harper's government (which represented 81 per cent of Canadians with some familiarity with the budget), nearly half thought it was better, almost twice the number who thought it was worse.
Among those Canadians aware of the budget, 51 per cent would certainly or probably vote to pass it, compared with just 34 per cent who would vote to defeat it.
The list of items that Canadians were more likely to say would be positively rather than negatively affected by the budget reads like the Liberals 2015 election campaign platform: infrastructure, the middle class, and opportunities for younger Canadians.
But more Canadians thought their own personal taxes and the level of short-term government debt would be negatively affected — a majority of respondents saying so for the latter.
However, on most items roughly half of respondents thought the budget would have no impact one way or another.
The Pollcast: What do Canadians think of the budget?
Listen to the latest episode of the Pollcast, hosted by Éric Grenier, to hear Abacus Data CEO David Coletto break down the results of this poll. You can subscribe to the Pollcast here.
Broad acceptance of budget measures
The poll suggests that many of the measures introduced in Finance Minister Bill Morneau's budget are acceptable to the vast majority of Canadians.
The most widely supported measure was the reduction in middle-class tax rates at the expense of the wealthiest Canadians. Fully 72 per cent of Canadians said they supported or strongly supported this measure, and 93 per cent said they either supported or accepted it in the current circumstances.
Support and acceptance reached 90 per cent on increased funding to veterans and $120 billion in infrastructure spending over the next 10 years. Acceptance or support for increasing student grants, extending employment insurance benefits, spending on colleges and universities, and investment in clean technology was over 80 per cent.
But a few items in the budget received more lukewarm support.
The Canada Child Benefit that was a major item in Morneau's budget was supported by 46 per cent of Canadians, with the number saying they supported or accepted the measure at 79 per cent. About a quarter of respondents were opposed to the $8.4 billion over five years going to indigenous Canadians, with 42 per cent supportive and 31 per cent accepting of it.
The least popular item on the poll's list was the extra $675 million pledged to the CBC over the next five years. Support stood at 27 per cent, while opposition was at 39 per cent. But overall, 60 per cent of Canadians said they supported or accepted the increased investment in the CBC.
The deficit? It's complicated
The Liberals campaigned on a promise to keep deficits to a "modest" $10 billion a year. But the deficit announced Tuesday was almost three times that amount.
Only 28 per cent of Canadians said they supported the deficit ballooning that much, the same number who said they were opposed to it. But the wiggle-room for the Liberals exists in the large proportion of Canadians who said they accepted the size of the deficit. That put the number of Canadians in support or accepting of the deficit at 73 per cent.
The Canadian economic context seems to have softened Canadians' potential reaction. Fully 70 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement that "I'd rather not have such a large deficit, but it's probably the right choice for now."
But the poll is clear that, while Canadians are willing to overlook the inflated size of the deficit, they would still prefer that it not be so big. Two-thirds of respondents agreed with the statement that "I wish the government had spent less money."
Putting the squeeze on the NDP
The poll also hinted at the difficulty the opposition New Democrats find themselves in faced with a Liberal government trying to crowd them out on their progressive flank.
Unsurprisingly, people who voted for the Liberals last year were overwhelmingly supportive of the budget, and nine out of 10 of them were supportive or accepting of the size of the deficit.
But the poll also found that NDP voters were in favour of the budget. A majority, or 59 per cent, said they would pass it if they were MPs, while just 25 per cent said they wouldn't. And 80 per cent of New Democrats were supportive or accepting of the increased size of the deficit.
Two-thirds of Conservative supporters would vote to defeat the budget and a majority of them were opposed to the size of the deficit. However, attacking the Liberals on that may only yield limited dividends — 41 per cent of Conservative voters were willing to live with it.
Additionally, Canadians reported little faith that the opposition parties would have done any better: Only 36 per cent think the Conservatives would have done better, while just 26 per cent would have expected a better budget from the NDP.
These numbers suggest that the Liberals may have made the right calculation on how Canadians would react to the size of the deficit. Support for delivering on their spending promises is wide, while the broken promise on the size of the deficit gets a pass.
As an initial reaction to their first budget, that is one the Liberals will happily take. But this acceptance is largely driven by the current economic context. If the economic growth promised in the budget fails to materialize and deficits accumulate with no end in sight, Canadians' currently tolerant attitude may not endure.
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The poll by Abacus Data was commissioned by EY and conducted between 6:30 p.m. ET on March 22 and 12:00 p.m. ET on March 23, 2016, interviewing 1,500 members of an online panel. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 2.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20.