What the poll numbers say about Trudeau's choices as he shuffles his cabinet

If the prime minister wants to address some vulnerabilities ahead of October's election, here are the ministers whose poll numbers could be weighing him down.

Policies, messaging can address the Liberals' vulnerabilities ahead of October's election. So could a shuffle

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will shuffle his cabinet on Monday. (Mark Taylor/Canadian Press)

Scott Brison's decision to leave cabinet and step away from politics will prompt a federal cabinet shuffle on Monday.

The shuffle could go one of two ways. It could be a relatively minor affair meant to bring the Liberals' front bench back up to strength with a minimum amount of disruption. Or it could be a shuffle with larger implications, giving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a last opportunity to address some of his government's vulnerabilities ahead of October's federal election.

Indications are that the scope of Monday's shuffle will be more like the first scenario than the second. But if Trudeau did want to rearrange the cabinet table to fix some problem areas, which ministers would he want to move?

While the blame — or credit — for how Canadians view the performance of the Liberals as a whole or the prime minister in particular on various issues does not rest entirely on individual ministers, a series of end-of-year surveys do give an indication of which cabinet ministers might be helping and which might be hurting the Liberals' re-election hopes.

Bill Morneau dragged down by his deficits

The Liberals score poorly when it comes to the debt and the deficit. An Ipsos/Global News survey conducted in early December suggested that, among Canadians who listed these as their top issues, just 10 per cent thought the Liberals were the best party to deal with them. That put the Liberals 44 percentage points behind the Conservatives.

Though this is Finance Minister Bill Morneau's purview, the prime minister takes some heat as well. In a mid-December poll, Abacus Data found that 46 per cent of Canadians believe Trudeau has done a poor or very poor job on debt and the deficit, with just 21 per cent giving him a good or very good score. The prime minister also gets low grades on handling taxpayers' money and the impact of changes to the tax system.

If one measure of a subordinate's performance is whether he or she makes the boss look good, Morneau does not shine. 

The Liberals score poorly on deficits and debt in polls — Finance Minister Bill Morneau's portfolio. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

That was also the finding of a poll by the Angus Reid Institute (ARI) conducted at the end of November and in early December. The survey tested the popularity of every cabinet minister.

One word of caution: the ARI poll found unusually high levels of awareness for all cabinet ministers. Take a straw poll of your friends and co-workers and you might be lucky if even one in 10, let alone the one in two measured by ARI, are familiar with names like Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Jean-Yves Duclos or Jonathan Wilkinson.

Nevertheless, the survey is a useful measure of the relative popularity of each of the cabinet ministers.

In that survey, Morneau was among the worst performers. The proportion, including those who weren't familiar with him, who thought Morneau was doing a bad job was 17 points higher than those who said he was doing a good job, giving him a net -17 score.

But Morneau's numbers have held relatively stable over the last year, suggesting he isn't getting more unpopular. And while he scores lowest in Alberta and the Prairies — where the Liberals have few prospects for gains — he breaks even in Quebec, the province upon which the Liberals are banking their re-election hopes.

Of course, Morneau isn't going anywhere. Changing the finance minister is not something done on a whim. But his portfolio remains a problem area for the Liberals.

Immigration and pipelines: 2 problem files

Pipelines and immigration are also on that list of problems.

Ipsos found that just 13 per cent of people who felt immigration was an important issue thought the Liberals were best suited to handle the file. Abacus found worsening numbers for the Liberals on immigration, while 43 per cent of Canadians gave the prime minister a poor or very poor rating on the issue.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen had a -17 rating in the ARI poll and was one of the ministers whose popularity had the steepest decline over the last year. That unpopularity is driven largely by Alberta and the Prairies, but Hussen was also a net drag on the Liberals in Ontario and Quebec.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen is likely to be on the hot seat in 2019, as immigration looks to be a major issue. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

That was also the case for Amarjeet Sohi, the natural resources minister. At -19, he was the worst performing minister and his numbers were even poorer in Alberta, where Sohi has his seat. Ipsos found the Liberals scoring badly on the energy file, while the worst issue for Trudeau in the Abacus Data survey was the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

A mixed bag for Catherine McKenna

While the broad swath of numbers look bad for Morneau, Hussen and Sohi, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna's are a mixed bag.

On the one hand, Ipsos found that the Liberals perform very well on climate change and the environment among those who list them as significant issues, while Abacus found climate change was one of the prime minister's better issues among those listed.

Polls suggest Environment Minister Catherine McKenna does not score as high as the prime minister or her party on the environment issue. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

But his numbers have worsened since 2016 on the file, with a 30-point swing toward those who say he is doing a bad job. McKenna's -6 ARI rating put her somewhere near the middle of the pack in cabinet and falling fast. But McKenna is only really unpopular in Alberta and the Prairies. Her ratings were roughly even in the rest of the country.

Minor tweaks, an upgrade, or both?

Where the Liberals and the prime minister score relatively well is on international relations and the NAFTA renegotiations, according to the Ipsos and Abacus polls. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland was the best performer in the ARI survey with a net +16. She also plays well in key electoral battlegrounds such as B.C. and Quebec.

Marc Garneau was another high-performer in the ARI survey at +12, second only to Freeland (though that might be more due to the former astronaut's space-visiting than his transport-ministering).

Radical shifts in direction are unlikely in Monday's cabinet shuffle, so figures like Morneau and Freeland will undoubtedly stay put. Before the need for a shuffle arose, the Liberals were instead focused on addressing their vulnerabilities on troubled files like the economy, immigration and pipelines through policies and messaging.

But the vacancy in Brison's old bailiwick of the Treasury Board means there could be a domino effect on other portfolios when his replacement is named. It's a chance for a few attempted upgrades if Trudeau feels they are necessary to improve his odds of re-election. We'll soon find out if he feels he needs the help.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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