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Voters want Harper kept on short leash and aren't yet sold on Layton: study

The feedback from a rapid-fire series of focus groups conducted after this week's federal election suggests Canadians have given Stephen Harper a very limited mandate - one that is restricted to the economy - and they do not yet view NDP Leader Jack Layton as prime ministerial material.

The election result was "a specific reaction to specific circumstances," said Jaime Watt, a principal of Ensight Canada, a government relations firm that conducted the study, which will be released to the public on Friday.

The research also suggests voters were fed up with minority government, a message that Mr. Harper and his Conservative pounded home on the campaign trail. And there is a willingness on the part of Canadians to explore limited private-sector options within health care to preserve a system they believe faces significant challenges.

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Immediately following election night, Ensight conducted 12 focus groups across the country representing a wide range of demographic groups including rural Canadians, urban Canadians, baby boomers, Liberals, New Democrats, Conservatives, and others.

In total, there were 108 participants recruited before the election day using random digit dialling, all of whom said they intended to vote. In addition, there were two national online panels, one made up of young voters and one made up of rural voters.

The study is qualitative rather than the quantitative type of research that is conducted through polling. But Mr. Watt told a news conference Thursday morning that the firm has carried out similar studies after previous elections and the results have proved to be accurate.

In this case, Mr. Watt said, all of the participants were saying the same thing. "We were in Halifax, Montreal, the GTA, Calgary and Vancouver," he said. "We heard the same thing from everybody contemporaneously."

Primarily, he noted, voters said the election was not a predictor of the way future elections will go.

"Voters want to hear from Mr. Harper first and foremost on the economy, they don't want to hear from him on a sharp ideological agenda," Mr. Watt said.

"They expect Mr. Harper to get to work, not tomorrow but today, on the economy. They expect him to deliver on the continuation of the economic action plan. They expect lower taxes, less regulation, less spending, and a focus on attracting foreign investment."

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And if the economy takes a downward slide, it is Mr. Harper who will bear the blame, he said.

The participants said Mr. Layton, on the other hand, won his position because they weren't at all happy with the alternatives, Mr. Watt said.

Despite all of the talk about the "orange crush" as NDP fortunes began to surge in the polls, it was Mr. Layton's own personal charisma and not his party brand or platform that Canadians found enticing, the study suggests.

"But he has to still earn his position as Leader of the Opposition," Mr. Watt said. And Canadians will lose patience with him "the moment he starts to act as though he is the prime minister in waiting or imagines he has the mandate to pursue a strong NDP program."

As for Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, the study suggests Canadians blamed him, along with Mr. Harper, for triggering what many referred to as an unnecessary and expensive election.

And despite Mr. Ignatieff's focus on the ethical issues that dogged the minority Conservative government, that line of discussion appears to have had little impact. "Voters told us that was partially because of an ineffective message," Mr. Watt said. "But mainly it was because there is a profound cynicism about politics and the games that are played."

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Meanwhile, Mr. Watt said, voters did not hear other storylines from the Liberal Leader that resonated with them. "He used all his time to talk about ethical lapses when he should have been talking about the Family Pack - his vision for a better Canada," he said.

When asked about the issues that dominated the campaign, health care emerged as a major concern of the focus groups in the Ensight study.

"They told us they are very worried about their health-care system and they expect their leaders to do something about it," Mr. Watt said. "They told us they were open to having Mr. Harper explore the possibility of private involvement to improve quality and contain costs."

But it was a dissatisfaction with the way politics has been done that produced the election results of May 2, he said.

"Although conventional wisdom told us Canadians were satisfied with the way minority governments were working, voters told us something different. They were clearly suffering from minority fatigue and they craved the stability and action that they believe that stability will allow."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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