'Taxing the rich' gets biggest reaction in real-time survey of 2017 budget speech

Finance Minister Bill Morneau's budget speech in March was watched closely by 54 people asked to spin a dial up or down based on whether they liked or disliked what he said minute by minute. The results: "tax fairness" got the best numbers, a defence review was a yawn.

Government used 'dial-testing' to gauge gut reactions to finance minister's statements minute by minute

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Finance Minister Bill Morneau after he delivered the federal budget in the House of Commons, Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Two focus groups with dials in their hands were also listening to the speech, grading Morneau on each statement he made. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A select group of Canadians hired to offer immediate gut reactions to Finance Minister Bill Morneau's budget speech gave the biggest thumbs-up to his pledges to make Canada's tax system fairer. 

Self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, Canada 150 celebrations and a new defence plan, on the other hand, were met with a yawn and a shrug.

There was a very positive reaction with the announcement of taxing the richest one per cent more in order to cut taxes for the middle class.- Nielsen report

Those are findings from Nielsen, a market research firm contracted by Finance Canada to run a real-time survey during Morneau's speech on March 22, using so-called dial-test technology.

CBC News obtained a copy of the $56,535 report under the Access to Information Act. 

For the survey, 54 people, split between Toronto and Montreal, each held a dial with a range between zero and 100, and twisted it up or down as Morneau read through his speech. The Montreal group listened to the French version.

A chunk of the speech talking about tax fairness registered as the best received, with most recipients cranking their dials toward the magic 100.

"This was the highest peak of the speech, regardless of gender or location," says Nielsen's report, compiled in the week after the budget.

"There was a very positive reaction with the announcement of taxing the richest one per cent more in order to cut taxes for the middle class, cracking down and closing loopholes and paying your fair share of taxes."

Dial-testing technology dates back to the 1930s but has only recently made its appearance in the federal government. The technique is said to more accurately test participants' emotional reactions to live events. (national-data.net)

The firm reported a poorer reception for some of the Liberal government's vaunted "innovation" strategies.

"Self-driving cars, genetics, artificial intelligence, e-commerce platform and digital technology elicited some downward movement when specifically mentioned by name," says the report.

A reference to Canada 150 celebrations had little impact — until the minister mentioned that access to national parks is free of charge in 2017, which noticeably drove up the dial readings.

Received differently

"The announcement of an upcoming new defence policy did not garner a strong reaction — neither positive nor negative," added the report.

And a section of Morneau's 3,300-word speech on gender equality was received differently depending on the sex of the listener: "Men were somewhat more likely to give neutral reactions compared to women, who reacted quite positively."

Finance Canada told Nielsen that each survey group "should have a good mix of males, females, ethnicity, high/low income and age." For the purpose of the survey, high-income was defined as those making over $100,000 a year; low-income was $30,000 to $99,000.

Participants were all aged 18 or older and were paid $125 for three hours of their time.

Dial-testers 'elicit honest feedback.'- Fannie Ouellette, Finance Canada spokesperson

This is the second year Morneau's department has used the dial-based methodology — variously called "continual response," "real-time response," "moment-to-moment research" or just "dial-testing." Nielsen uses a version called the "Perception Analyzer."

A $61,000 Nielsen dial-test of last year's budget speech found participants turning the dial way up when the minister talked about ending boil-water advisories on First Nation reserves, and down when he referred to carbon pricing and expanded intake of Syrian refugees.

Critics of dial-testing, versions of which date back to the 1930s, say it distorts responses; supporters say it reveals emotional reactions.

A spokesperson for Finance Canada said dial-testers "elicit honest feedback."

The method "combines the qualitative insights of a focus group with the quantitative precision of a survey," Fannie Ouellette said, adding this was the only public-opinion research the department commissioned to gauge the impact of Morneau's budget.

The dial-test feedback likely plays into the Liberal government's strategies for selling its 2017 budget, but the Nielsen report is silent on how the findings could be used.

No ads permitted

The department budgeted $465,000 for surveys in 2016-2017, and another $1.5 million for advertising — but under the Liberal government's communications policy, no ads were permitted for the 2017 budget because none of the measures had passed Parliament.

The Nielsen report found the dials generally spun toward higher numbers when concrete measures affecting personal lives were mentioned, such as tax relief for caregivers, health care spending, affordable housing and the Canada Child Benefit.

CNN was among the first news organization to introduce dial-testing during political debates. (cnn.com)

And overall, the dial numbers showed participants to be "cautiously optimistic" about the budget.

"A slim majority felt that it either met or exceeded their expectations, but there was a sizeable group that felt it did not meet their expectations."

Some also felt Morneau's speech relied too heavily on "buzzwords" such as "middle class" or "innovation" without providing detail or definitions.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?