Bill who? Canadians might not know the finance minister's name, but they know what they think of him

Polls suggest a plurality of Canadians think the finance minister is doing a bad job, but do most Canadians even know his name?

Open-ended polling has often shown Canadians are not very familiar with the people running government

Polls suggest that a plurality of Canadians are unhappy with the performance of Finance Minister Bill Morneau. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

In 2015's Canadian Election Study, an academic survey conducted during every federal election campaign, a handful of people asked to name the minister of finance said it was Mike Duffy.

One respondent, with some apparent hesitation, said it was "Mulcair maybe." Another felt confident it was "a lady whose name I don't recall." Some guessed it was David Johnston, who was instead the governor general, or John Tory, the mayor of Toronto.

Many thought Jim Flaherty still held the job, or knew that Flaherty had passed away a year earlier but were unable to name his successor. Those who remembered that it was "Joe Something" or "Joe what's his name" were halfway there.

Just under one-fifth of respondents correctly identified the outgoing minister of finance as Joe Oliver.

Those of us who live inside the so-called Ottawa bubble might be discouraged to find out just how opaque it can be.

Has Finance Minister Bill Morneau pierced that bubble?

There hasn't yet been a survey asking whether people can name the current finance minister unassisted, making it difficult to compare Canadians' awareness of Morneau to his predecessors.

But a recent series of polls suggest Canadians' opinion of Morneau is not positive.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau arrive at Rideau Hall with his cabinet to take part in a swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa in 2015. Studies show Canadians have long struggled to name the finance minister, or any minister of the government. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Polls by the Angus Reid Institute (ARI), Nanos Research and Forum Research indicate that, by an average margin of 13 points, more Canadians think Morneau has done a bad, poor or ineffective job as finance minister rather than a good or effective one.

But these recent polls also suggest that the vast majority of Canadians have an opinion on the finance minister. He earned the lowest ranking among Trudeau's ministers in the ARI poll.

These polls, unlike the election survey, explicitly identify Morneau as the minister of finance — and the ARI also included a picture — aiding people's memories and placing him in the context of his responsibilities.

Could the effect be that respondents are not only opining on their views of the man himself but how the government as a whole is handling his particular file?

"Morneau has been singled out for attention in the news, largely as a result of his own actions," says Shachi Kurl, executive director of the ARI. "That drives awareness in a way that Morneau might not have preferred."

Morneau was grabbing headlines for weeks after it was learned he hadn't disclosed to the ethics commissioner a private corporation that holds his villa in southern France and later, that he hadn't put all the shares of his family pension company in a blind trust.

But Morneau is not the first finance minister to make headlines. Nevertheless, Canadians have had great difficulty in naming his predecessors in past surveys.

Don't you know who I am?

In addition to the shrug elicited by Joe Oliver in 2015, just 32 per cent of respondents correctly identified Jim Flaherty — or something approaching that name — as the head of the country's finances when surveyed in 2011. At that point, he had been doing the job for more than five years.

It was even worse in 2004, when the Canadian Election Study survey found that just eight per cent of respondents could correctly name Ralph Goodale as the finance minister. 

Paul Martin laughs as he is congratulated by members of the Liberal government after delivering his budget speech in the House of Commons in 1997. He had higher name recognition than some other finance ministers. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Even in 2000, when Paul Martin had been an MP for 12 years and finance minister for seven of them — years during which Canada's finances were significantly overhauled —  no more than 65 per cent of respondents could identify him as the minister of finance.

What actually drives opinion?

The opinions expressed in any poll on cabinet ministers might have less to do with the minister than with government policy more broadly. Unprompted recognition of cabinet ministers is low — in the 2008 election study, the last time the question was asked, over 60 per cent of respondents couldn't name a single cabinet minister.

(We may be getting less informed, as nearly 60 per cent could name a cabinet minister in a 1954 Gallup poll.)

The lower-scoring ministers in the Angus Reid Institute poll now are those currently responsible for finance, Indigenous affairs, immigration, national revenue, natural resources and democratic institutions — ministries that deal with controversial issues or those in which the Liberals have broken or have yet to deliver on election promises.

"Decisions made by the Liberal government on the immigration file, for instance, are not necessarily in line with public opinion," says ARI's Kurl. "So are opinions of Ahmed Hussen [the immigration minister] related to his performance or due to him handling a contentious and divisive file?"

This makes it difficult to say with certainty what Canadians really think about the individuals who make up Trudeau's cabinet.

Undoubtedly, there is a link between Morneau's troubles and his far poorer ratings in the ARI poll than those of his fellow cabinet ministers. Nevertheless, ask Canadians who the minister of finance is and most will probably have no clue, raising some doubts about how strongly held these views really are.

But one doesn't need to know the name of a minister or be familiar with his or her biography to have an opinion that will influence a vote. If Canadians think the finances of the country are in poor shape or smell a whiff of scandal in the finance ministry, they know who to blame: "Bill what's his name."


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.