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Canadians have little confidence in governments to solve issues that matter most: study

An important new study reveals a potent disconnect between the issues that matter most to Canadians and their confidence that government can deliver.

From improving health care to balancing budgets, the more Canadians want to see things get better, the less they believe things will.

"There are many issues that are important to Canadians," observed pollster Nik Nanos. "But there isn't a lot of confidence in finding solutions."

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The results of the survey should sound an alarm for anyone who cares about the direction Canada is taking. And it explains why the federal Conservatives win election after election in the face of a divided and confused opposition.

Nanos Research and the Institute for Research on Public Policy co-produced the study. Two thousand Canadians were asked to rate the major issues of the day, and to rate their confidence in the ability of government – whether federal, provincial or municipal – to handle those issues.

A copy of the study, which is being released Wednesday, was provided in advance to The Globe and Mail. Mr. Nanos divided the responses into what he calls "transformative" versus "transactional" issues.

The most powerful issues, where voters place a high priority on transformative change, include preserving and improving the quality of public health care, balancing government budgets and coping with an aging population.

Yet when voters were asked how confident they were "in our ability to find solutions" to these high-priority problems, more voters had no confidence at all than had high levels of confidence.

"When we look at transformative issues such as health care, such as the aging population…there's not a lot of confidence in our ability to find solutions," Mr. Nanos said. "But there tends to be a higher level of confidence in public policy issues that are more transactional."

These transactional, or more incremental, issues include developing Canada's natural resources, policing the border, trading with other nations, and improving infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.

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"These issues are less important to Canadians," Mr. Nanos concluded, "but there's more confidence in the ability to find a solution."

Only in the area of preserving safe communities did voters assign a high importance while also being reasonably confident that governments could do the job.

On improving the quality of life for Canada's first nations, most Canadians appear not to care and not to believe anything can be done.

The implications for how governments govern and planners plan are profound. For example, before any political party proposes changes aimed at improving the quality of long-term care for the elderly, they must confront the fact that people don't believe their proposals will succeed. Mr. Nanos calls it "public policy futility."

Bitter experience has made citizens wary of anyone who promises to provide more doctors and improve classroom education while balancing the books.

This is particularly uncomfortable news for socially progressive parties.

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Transformative issues, such as health care, "tend to be more issues of the left," Mr. Nanos observed, "because it's about changing society, while many right-wing issues are about optimizing society: How can we create more jobs; how can we create wealth?"

He calls this "utilitarian public policy."

This may help explain why the Harper government has avoided imposing standards for social policy, including health care, on the provinces, while focusing on delivering results in areas where voters at least have some hope that results could be delivered.

The Conservatives have made resource development a top priority; they are negotiating trade deals in Europe and Asia, and Mr. Harper signed a border accord with American President Barack Obama last year.

And the Tories have made fighting crime a signature issue.

Of course, voters could become more optimistic about the ability of politicians to deliver transformative change. But the politicians need to prove themselves first.

People, for example, are highly doubtful that governments can balance the books. There is probably only one way to convince them: balance the books.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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