Analysis

The Liberals spent $233,000 to learn their budget messages aren't getting through to Canadians

Newly released studies done for Finance Minister Bill Morneau suggest the Liberals' messaging about helping the middle class and promoting gender equality isn't getting through to ordinary voters.

New reports say Liberal budget themes understood, but voters don't always see the benefits

Finance Minister Bill Morneau explains 2018 budget measures at the Economic Club of Canada in Ottawa the day after tabling his third budget. Studies done for his department suggest some of his messages aren't getting through to voters. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Newly released studies done for Finance Minister Bill Morneau suggest the Liberals' political messaging about help for the middle class and promoting gender equality isn't getting through to ordinary voters.

The studies, which cost taxpayers more than $233,000, are part of the Finance department's efforts to gauge public reaction to signature spending initiatives worth billions of dollars.

The first study is based on in-depth interviews with a cross-section of voters in Mississauga, Montreal, Kitchener, Winnipeg and Vancouver during the pre-budget period between Dec. 18, 2017 and Jan. 11, 2018. The other study is based on real-time feedback before and after the Feb. 27 budget with select voters in Montreal and Toronto — something the Liberals started tracking in 2016 to "develop communications products" following each budget.

The findings suggest words speak louder than actions.

The focus groups conducted over the Christmas period by Environics Research concluded that the government performed well when it comes to improving relations with First Nations, legalizing cannabis and improving Canada's international image.

But as interviewers dug into the responses in greater detail, they exposed the challenges the Liberals face in convincing voters that major pieces of their platform are having a direct impact on ordinary Canadians' lives.

In particular, the report said the findings suggest middle-class Canadians — the very demographic the Liberals have been courting since their election with both policy initiatives and political messaging — don't feel their lives are getting better.

Measures fail to register with voters

Participants spoke of the difficulty of affording a home, the high cost of living and "decreasing" salaries, even as the government was singing the praises of its $24-billion Canada Child Benefit — monthly, tax-free payments made to eligible families to help with the cost of raising children.

Both Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have said the CCB will lift 300,000 children out of poverty and put more money in the pockets of nine out of 10 families.

"There was almost no awareness of anything the federal government had done to help people with the rising cost of living," the Environics report said. "After prompting, there was some acknowledgement of the CCB increase."

The same held true for the Working Income Tax Benefit for low-income earners — a benefit introduced more than a decade ago by the Conservatives.

"There was little to no awareness of this tax credit," the report said.

Meanwhile, focus group participants reported being deeply anxious about what jobs will look like in the new economy, describing the workplace of the future as "a lonely place with more people working from home, robots taking over and jobs becoming increasingly temporary and unstable."

An official in Morneau's office acknowledged the challenge of convincing ordinary Canadians of the benefits of the government's fiscal and tax policies. The official pointed to the government's decision in March to "re-brand" the Working Income Tax Benefit as the Canada Workers Benefit, and to make enrolment automatic, as part of an effort to better communicate those benefits. Finance estimates automatic enrolment will reach an extra 300,000 workers.

"Canada Workers Benefit is calling it what it is," Morneau said at the time.

His office also said it's adapting budget promotion to make greater use of social media to reach voters.

Other report findings suggest Canadians are aware of the size of the federal deficit, but are not overly worried about it. Morneau has gone to great lengths over the past two years to downplay the size of the deficit — much higher than originally forecast — by framing it as a small portion of Canada's overall economy, the so-called debt to GDP ratio.

Environics said virtually no one surveyed understands debt-to-GDP ratio — but when it was explained to them, they tended to express relief that the debt as a share of the economy's overall value was low and had decreased.

Term 'feminist budget' draws negative reaction

Other, more tangible items — such as the budget's focus on gender equality — also failed to register deeply with voters, the report said. It recorded only a "vague recollection about the gender statement in last year's budget," though participants agreed it was a well-intentioned and positive theme.

"They struggled with what specific measures in the budget could address inequalities between men and women,'' the report said — adding the response of participants in Winnipeg and Vancouver to the "feminist budget" terminology was quite negative.

Morneau has since emphasized the benefits of closing the gender gap between male and female earners to the overall economy.

"I certainly do not accept the argument that [Canada] should be 15th out of 29 OECD in terms of the pay gap between men and women," he told a Calgary audience during a tour to promote the 2018 budget, noting women in Canada still earn 88 cents for every dollar made by men on an hourly basis.

Budget day polling by Corporate Research Associates to assess voter reaction to this year's budget likewise found that the broad themes set out by Morneau — support for low and middle-income Canadians, steps to help Indigenous people and gender equality, encouraging science and innovation, improving tax fairness, promoting job creation and protecting the environment — were well-received.

"However, participants indicated that they expected to see these kinds of themes included and thus did not see these as unique to this budget," the report said. "Based on this perception, many participants preferred to reserve judgment on whether or not the desired outcomes could successfully be achieved via these budget measures."

Add it all up, and it's not the kind of credit rating Morneau and Trudeau were hoping for when they decided to spend heavily with the singular goal of convincing middle class voters that they're better off with the Liberals.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.