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Opposition doesn’t get it: Muckraking only briefly sways voters

Stephen Harper, having paid the political price for the controversies that dogged his government last spring, appears to have been forgiven. In that forgiveness lies a fascinating insight into the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Canadian voter.

Canadians may not warm to Mr. Harper, but unless the headlines are screaming scandal, they trust him more than other politicians. And even though those headlines may temporarily shake that trust, as soon as the story moves off page one, the trust returns.

A Nanos Research Survey released Tuesday shows that the hit the Prime Minister took to his credibility in the wake of the omnibus bill, the furor over alleged electoral fraud and the controversies surrounding the F-35 fighter contract has dissipated.

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The Nanos Leadership Index – a compendium of scores based on responses to questions about which federal political leader voters believe is most trustworthy and competent and has the best vision of the country – shows voter trust in Mr. Harper has returned to its traditional level of around 100.

To be precise, Mr. Harper earned a score of 104.2 in a poll conducted between Nov. 9 and Nov. 15. He has scored at or around 100 more often than not since the beginning of 2008.

Last July, as omnibusgate, robogate and F-35gate roiled the political waters, Mr. Harper's trust index plummeted to an all-time low of 72.7. But since then that score has steadily improved.

For pollster Nik Nanos, the numbers demonstrate that voters are more interested in the overall ability of a government to govern – regardless of how they view the government leader personally – than in any particular kerfuffle..

"We shouldn't confuse likeability with being able to govern," Mr. Nanos said in an interview. "None of the opposition parties looks like a government in waiting. That just makes Stephen Harper look taller."

Mr. Nanos observed that, unless one of the other political parties and its leader are able to present themselves as that elusive government-in-waiting, any controversy-du-jour eventually becomes "political wallpaper … part of the noise in Ottawa," with voters defaulting to their traditional level of trust in the Conservative government.

In this respect, the poll for NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is particularly disheartening. With a leadership index of 43.6, less than half that of the Prime Minister, he has clearly not convinced Canadians that he and his team are ready and able to lead the country.

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His predecessor, Jack Layton, typically scored in the same range, except for the tremendous spike in Spring 2011 that resulted in the NDP forming the official opposition.

The message for NDP and Liberal political strategists is stark: While there is short-term political gain to be had by hammering the government over defence procurement, dodgy election tactics or other alleged sins, those attacks have a limited shelf life.

Unless the news of Conservative malfeasance can be sustained, the voters are inclined to eventually discount them.

To defeat the Conservatives, in this environment, the opposition must do more than simply rake muck; they must fundamentally shake voter confidence in the ability of the Conservatives to mind the store, while boosting voter confidence in their own team.

This – through three elections, with an endless litany of contretemps between votes – they have failed to achieve. All the opposition has managed to accomplish has been to convert the Conservative minority government into a majority.

Sometimes it must be hard to get out of bed in the morning at Stornaway.

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The Nanos poll also shows the Conservatives holding on to a modest lead in overall public support. If an election were held today, 34 per cent say they would vote Conservative, 29 per cent would vote Liberal – a considerable improvement on the 19 per cent the party obtained in the last election – while 27 per cent would support the NDP.

Nanos conducted a telephone survey of 1,004 Canadians, with the results considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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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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