Politics·Analysis

Could governments win back the goodwill they had during the pandemic? Maybe by building things

A funny thing happened during the depths of the pandemic: a plurality of Canadians felt their governments were having a positive impact on peoples' lives. It didn't last.

Why governments need to show they're having a positive impact on people's lives

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, greets Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, as they tour an under construction affordable housing complex in Hamilton, Ont., last summer. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

A funny thing happened during the depths of the pandemic: a plurality of Canadians felt their governments were having a positive impact on peoples' lives.

It didn't last. But perhaps governments should be thinking hard now about how they can engender such good feelings, even outside of moments of profound crisis.

In March 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to impact life in Canada, the Environics Institute asked Canadians "what kind of impact … governments have on most people's lives."  Thirty per cent of survey respondents said governments had a positive impact, while 40 per cent said they had a negative impact. Environics found similar splits when it asked that question in January and October 2019.

By August 2020, there'd been a modest, but interesting shift — 36 per cent now said positive, while 34 percent said negative. 

That 36-34 split held up through the winter of 2020 and into February 2021. But as the threat of COVID-19 recedeed, so did the positive vibe. When Environics asked the question at the start of 2022, public opinion had snapped back to where it was before the virus took hold — 30 per cent said governments had a positive impact, 41 per cent said negative. 

The stories underneath polling numbers can be complicated. When voting intention and political ideology are considered, that negative sentiment seems to capture both conservative voters who might be inclined to favour less government and NDP voters who might wish their Conservative or Liberal governments were doing more. People who voted for a party that is now in office, either provincially or federally, also seem to feel better about what governments are doing.

More Canadians still say they prefer a "bigger government with more services" to a "smaller government with fewer services" and there's not enough data to determine whether or how public opinion on impact has shifted or deteriorated over the long-term. The current positive-negative split nearly matches what the Environics Institute found when it asked the same question in 2002. That might suggest that the current level of dissatisfaction is simply the default and not necessarily a sign of crumbling faith.

But it's still not ideal. And if the goal right now is to reinforce and build faith in democratic institutions then that negative sentiment looks like an area that deserves some attention — not just for progressives, who believe in active government, but for anyone who would like to see liberal democracy flourish anew.

Why don't we feel better about our governments?

The Environics Institute's findings make sense when you consider how most people probably experience government; we don't notice when it works, but we really notice when it doesn't. Many of the things that good government ensures: paved roads, clean drinking water, clean air, less corruption – are now baseline expectations. And when you have to line-up for hours to renew a passport or get on a plane, that easily overshadows the cheap public transit you took to get there or the Canada Child Benefit cheque that arrived a week ago.

That negative sentiment also aligns with how governments are generally covered by the media. As Bill Fox, a former Ottawa bureau chief for the Toronto Star and a former director of communications to Brian Mulroney, notes in his book Trump, Trudeau, Tweets, Truth, "news stories by definition seize on what is wrong, what isn't working, who didn't get a cheque, what employer isn't eligible for a pandemic bailout."

While the government's pandemic policies may have saved countless lives, people lined up at a passport office in Montreal, this week may struggle to remember pandemic success in the face of bureaucratic sluggishness. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Fox borrows Thomas Patterson's idea that the news has a negative bias. But during an appearance on the Herle Burly podcast earlier this year, Fox linked that tendency to the current concern about the public's faith in liberal democracy and its institutions. 

"It [reinforces] the idea … that governments actually don't get much done that's of any benefit," Fox said. "And that's problematic for western liberal democracies for sure."

Journalists might fairly respond that their emphasis on what's not working is an important part of holding governments to account and that doing so encourages governments to do better. But Fox also isn't wrong to suggest that cynicism about government could be a corrosive force that slowly undermines liberal democracy — and journalists might still ask themselves whether they're unwittingly contributing to that. 

But the biggest questions are for governments themselves. 

Governments need to show and tell

If public opinion about the impact of government action improved during the pandemic it is likely in no small part because the action was so tangible and immediate: support programs were quickly delivered, health restrictions were implemented, vaccines were procured and distributed. 

Governments in Canada are probably more successful than they are given credit for. It's not entirely down to pure luck that Canadians, on average, enjoy a comparatively high quality of life. But it's not always obvious that governments are accomplishing much – or as much as they should be.

When Justin Trudeau's government first attempted to apply a management philosophy known as "deliverology" to its agenda, the prime minister talked about focusing on the outcomes of government action, not merely the inputs. But whatever deliverology has meant for internal government processes, it has not resulted in a great emphasis on whatever has been accomplished.

Liberals are fond of pointing out that the Canada Child Benefit led to a significant reduction in child poverty. And if they hadn't over-promised in 2015, they might have a slightly better story to tell about the number of boil-water advisories that have been lifted in Indigenous communities over the last seven years. But the Liberals are haunted by claims that they are more talk than action and they have struggled to answer those charges.

Trudeau stands near an 'I Got Vaccinated!' sign at a vaccination clinic in Ottawa in September of last year. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

But whatever the Liberal government has done over the last seven years, there are a lot of things — big things — to do right now. Clean energy needs to be developed and deployed, public transit needs to be expanded, houses – a lot of houses – need to be built. And while it is a mistake to pine for the days when Sir John A. Macdonald was getting the Canadian Pacific Railway built — the CPR is not a sterling example of how to get things done — the argument for a "liberalism that builds" has merit, not only for progressives but for anyone who wants to demonstrate that liberal democracy can work. 

As much as the pandemic showed that governments could move at speed and scale, COVID-19 also found weaknesses like long-term care and exposed the limits of preparedness and capacity. The pandemic has also now contributed to problems like inflation and the scenes at passport offices and airports. Public policy may have saved millions of lives, but Canadians could be forgiven if they came away from the pandemic with doubts about the effectiveness of their governments.

It might be unlikely that large majorities of Canadians will ever be perfectly satisfied with their governments. But the next few years would be a particularly good time for governments to show that they can have a positive impact on people's lives. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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