Canadians shrug off Justin Trudeau's elbow, polls suggest

While two polls published this week show that most Canadians are aware of the 'Elbowgate' controversy, a majority said the altercation in the House was much ado about nothing. And, the polls suggest, it has had no impact on the party's support.

Support for Liberals holds steady despite 'Elbowgate' controversy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologizes for his conduct following an incident in the House when he pulled Conservative whip Gord Brown through a clutch of New Democrat MPs to hurry up a vote related to doctor-assisted dying. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The altercation in the House of Commons last week between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of the opposition captured Canadians' attention, but two polls published this week suggest a majority of those Canadians have shrugged it off like a wayward elbow on a crowded subway.

The latest poll, conducted by Ipsos for Global News, shows that 63 per cent of Canadians feel the tussle was "no big deal," a "momentary lapse of judgment" on the part of the prime minister, and that "we should all just move on."

These feelings were particularly strong among Canadians who were following the issue.

And many Canadians have been. Ipsos found that 37 per cent of Canadians were following it and that, overall, 83 per cent were aware of it having occurred.

These numbers echoed those of a poll conducted by Abacus Data immediately after the commotion in the House of Commons. According to Abacus, 40 per cent of Canadians were following the story very or somewhat closely, while 82 per cent were aware of it in some way.

But both polls came to the conclusion that the impact of Trudeau's elbow was minimal on Canadian public opinion, and that those Canadians who were most offended by it were those that were already predisposed to disliking the prime minister.

Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. (Handout/House of Commons/Canadian Press)

While Ipsos found that 37 per cent of Canadians felt Trudeau had "no excuse" and that the scuffle in the House raised "serious questions about his maturity and judgment," almost half of those were Conservative voters. A narrow majority of New Democrats leaned towards the altercation being "no big deal."

Abacus Data, which was in the field before and after the tumult, found no impact on Canadians views of Trudeau concerning whether he "sets a good example for young people" or "genuinely cares about other people." There was an impact on the question of his ability to handle stress well, however — that dropped to 74 per cent from 83 per cent.

Abacus also asked whether the ruckus had any impact on their views of Trudeau. Just over two-thirds, or 71 per cent, said it had no impact, while 23 per cent said it changed their opinion for the worse. But again, this was largely among Conservatives, 45 per cent of whom said it changed their views of Trudeau for the worse, compared to just 23 per cent of New Democrats.

No impact on approval, voting intentions

Nevertheless, the fact that anywhere from a quarter to two-fifths of Canadians — depending on the poll wording and methodology — see the "Elbowgate" events in a negative light (including a number of Liberal supporters) is not good news for Trudeau.

The danger exists for the governing party that events like these happen again in the future, creating a perception among Canadians that what happened in the House last week was not a singular event, but rather part of a larger pattern. Needless to say, it would have been better for the Liberals had it not occurred in the first place.

But in the short term, there has been no impact on Canadians' views of the government. Abacus found that the government's approval rating was 54 per cent over their entire time in the field, and was actually higher (though not significantly) after the fracas in the House. Ipsos, which did not give respondents the option of being undecided, put the government's approval rating at 62 per cent.

Both polls also put support for the Liberals among decided voters at 46 per cent, well in line with surveys taken since the 2015 election and a number that held firm in Abacus's polling before and after the incident. The Conservatives trailed in the two polls at 27 and 30 per cent, with the New Democrats at 15 per cent.

In the court of public opinion, it appears that Trudeau and his Liberals have come out of "Elbowgate" virtually unharmed. Canadians seem to still be willing to give the new government the benefit of the doubt. The prime minister may not be so lucky next time.

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The poll by Ipsos was conducted for Global News between May 20 and 24, 2016, interviewing 1,002 Canadian adults via the Internet. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The poll by Abacus Data was conducted between May 17 and 20, 2016, interviewing 2,000 Canadian adults via the Internet. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 2.2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.


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.