Economic anxiety splinters ahead of federal budget, poll shows

Economic anxiety splinters ahead of federal budget, poll shows
VANCOUVER—As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to release the federal budget on Tuesday, Canadians’ broad fear of a declining economy has splintered into many forms, according to a new Angus Reid Institute public poll.

When respondents were asked earlier this month to choose the two most important national issues, health care was the most common answer at 23 per cent, followed by the environment, income inequality, corruption, government spending, housing affordability, the economy, energy, immigration and finally taxes, which polled at 10 per cent.

When a similar poll was conducted in early 2016, as the federal Liberals prepared their first budget, Canadians ruled the economy the most important issue. Jobs ranked second.

But that doesn’t indicate an end to Canadians’ anxiety. Four-in-10 respondents expect the economy to worsen over the next year. Fifty-five per cent say it’s not a good time to make a big-ticket purchase. Nearly half of respondents were worried that someone in their household could lose their job because of the economy.

There is a growing group of Canadians who feel left behind or on the margins, said Stewart Prest, Simon Fraser University political scientist. They are looking for security, he said, and this will manifest in different ways ahead of October’s general election.

“The economy affects people in concrete ways, which varies by personal circumstances a lot,” Prest explained. “We are going to be having multiple, distinct conversations, and it may be harder to have broader national conversations that bring people on the same way.”

The budget is expected to address pharmacare, specific jobs training and potentially housing.

While Prest said it’s difficult to determine how things will play out, six months ahead of the general election, he speculated the Liberals will double down on issues that resonate with their base, such as immigration or Islamophobia.

During Monday’s Question Period in Parliament, Trudeau was vocal about denouncing white supremacy and racism, saying the fight will be “major” but Canada cannot put it off anymore.

“I suspect the Liberals will give up on trying to please everyone,” Prest said. “They are going to try to build a winning coalition and won’t necessarily be casting as wide a tent as they did in 2015.”

The issues on Canadians’ minds — including housing affordability, inequality, taxation and spending — “break” in two different directions, according to Shachi Kurl, Angus Reid executive director.

“This splits along political lines. Those who would consider voting Conservative Party are more concerned about the latter issues. Those who would consider the Liberals and/or NDP key on the former,” she said in an email.

There are marked provincial differences as well. Respondents in Alberta and Saskatchewan are feeling the most bleak, with nearly half of residents believing their standard of living worsened in the last year. Those regions also have the highest anxiety over potential job losses, with six-in-10 residents concerned for the household.

However, Albertans are more likely to expect their standards of living to improve next year, while Saskatchewanians are more likely to believe it will worsen.

Meanwhile, poverty in Canada is lower than ever. The Liberal government attributes its decline to the Canada Child Benefit and an increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors, the poll report noted.

However, middle-class growth — a key component of the government’s 2015 platform — has largely been stagnant. Recent income-tax data suggests these households have seen little to no increase in income. Meanwhile, unemployment has dropped and the economy has grown relatively steadily, the poll report explained.

That’s why the Trudeau government will have to straddle making life more affordable while showing they’re taking deficit spending seriously, Kurl said.

From a political standpoint, this is an “absolutely crucial budget,” Kurl said, given the government’s need to change the channel on the contentious SNC-Lavalin affair.

“MPs in caucus are likely clamouring for something more to talk about on the doorstep and community events than the PM’s explanation of what happened,” she explained. “They’re getting hammered in the polls and desperate to move on.”

The Angus Reid Institute conducted the self-commissioned online survey from March 8 to March 10, polling 1,594 Canadian adults who are members of its forum. The margin of error is +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
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