The Toronto Star with Heather Bastedo 15 November 2018
Canadians are worried about a lot of things these days, according to a new survey, but they’re not the things dominating the current political debate.
The results of this new Public Square Research poll, made available exclusively to the Star, are a wake-up call to those plotting next year’s federal election campaign. There appears to be a significant mismatch between what’s keeping many Canadians awake at night and what the politicians, of all stripes, are talking about every day in the Commons or in the political headlines.
Public Square asked 1,500 voting-age Canadians this week whether they were worried about their future — more than half, 55 per cent, said they were worried or somewhat worried — and what were the top three issues on their fretful minds.
The top three concerns:
- The cost of basics, such as groceries, electricity and gas;
- Health, or the health of a family member;
- Having enough money to retire.
“Going into an election year, we wanted to do a gut check on what was really keeping Canadians up at night, and found that the issues that dominate the front pages are, for the most part, way down the list,” Heather Bastedo, President of Public Square Research, says in a release accompanying what she’s calling the “worry index.”
“It’s not to say that Canadians don’t care about the #MeToo movement, LGBTQ, public transit, or Indigenous issues, but those things are not their top worry.” Bastedo says that her survey shows Canadians are overwhelmingly preoccupied with “close to home” or “pocketbook” issues.
Political parties are fond of distilling debate into campaigns of hope and fear — and 2019 will be filled with that kind of election rhetoric. But this survey shows that hope is currently in short supply — only 14 per cent of respondents said they were optimistic — while their fears are not what the federal politicians are talking about.
Some politicians, especially federal Conservatives, might argue that the ongoing debate over carbon pricing touches on the number-one worry of Canadians — the cost of basics — but this survey also demonstrates the peril of seeing that issue only as a pocketbook concern.
The environment was ranked fourth on the list of Canadians’ worries, and it was one of the few issues on which people said they would turn to the government to address their concerns.
In fact, it is also striking to see how little the government or politicians figure into possible solutions for Canadians’ worries. When Public Square asked where people would turn to address their top-of-mind worries, most answered: “myself.”
The result may speak to a laudable self-reliance on the part of Canadians, but it could also tell the story of the irrelevance of current political discourse. When Canadians are pacing the floor at night, worried about their future, they’re clearly not finding the answers they want in political talking points or, heaven help us, on Twitter.
It’s equally striking to see what’s at the bottom of the list of Canadians’ worries: immigration, online security, racism and the national debt were identified as concerns by fewer than 10 per cent of respondents.
Someone may want to slip those findings into those devising strategy for question period in the Commons, especially the lead Conservative questioners, but also the Liberal government ministers and MPs who often frame their answers around how much they’ve done for the middle class or marginalized Canadians.
Despite weeks of Conservative outrage over data and privacy, for instance, online security is not top of mind on the worry index, and Liberals’ avowals of concern for middle-class concerns isn’t alleviating concerns about the cost of basics.
Personal debt, people’s homes and keeping a job, as well as crime and safety, figured around the midpoint of the ranked list of Canadians’ worries, but well behind the top three.
This new “worry index” might well be a good blueprint for those currently writing the campaign platforms for 2019. If politicos are paying attention, they’ll be doing a lot of thinking about how to talk to Canadians about the cost of basics, health and retirement in the weeks and months ahead.
Public Square Research designed this survey, in which Canadians were asked general questions about their state of worry and/or optimism, and then asked to choose their top 3 worries from a list of 24 items. Maru Voice Canada, a market-research firm, distributed the survey online to 1,500 Canadians on Tuesday and results were tabulated later in the week. The survey data has been weighted to reflect StatsCan population demographics, but because the survey is not considered what pollsters call a “probability sample,” no margins of error can be calculated.
Bastedo says the results may explain why Canadians often say they’ve checked out of politics.
“We often ask why Canadians tune out political affairs and are less likely to vote or pick up the newspaper,” she says, “but maybe we should ask why politicians and the media are not talking about issues that are on the top of the list of worries of Canadians.”