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Things look good around here — for now

Paul Wells on perception, reality and the Canadian economy


 

A word cloud from the 2011 federal budget: economic, action, plan.

 

So it turns out Ipsos has been polling monthly, since 2007,  in 24 countries around the world, about attitudes toward the local economy. The latest round landed in my emailbox tonight, and it’s very interesting reading. It helps explain why incumbent governments have been doing well in Canadian elections, and why economic insecurity is still a big ingredient in our politics. Let’s take a look.

A hefty .pdf of the annoyingly named “Global @dvisor” poll’s latest results is here. Let me highlight a few results.

Respondents were asked how they think their country’s economy is doing; how the “local” economy is doing in their area; and whether they expect things to get better or worse during the next six months. Canadian respondents were near the top in their perception of their country’s economy: 65 per cent think the situation in Canada is “very good” or “somewhat good” (“somewhat bad” and “very bad” were the other options), the fifth-highest result out of the 24 countries surveyed. Saudi Arabia (84 per cent), Sweden (81 per cent), Germany (69 per cent) and India (68 per cent) were ahead. 

Right away you see that perception and reality are different things. By most measures, Canadians are more affluent than Indians. But perceptions aren’t trivial: They measure your broad sense of how things are going against how you’ve learned to expect they should go. In the G8, for instance, Canada and Germany leave the rest of the group in the dust: only 28 per cent of Russians and Americans think their national economy is in “good” shape, 14 per cent of Brits, 9 per cent in France and 5 per cent in Italy. Specifically, since 2010 there’s been a steady gap of roughly 40 points between Canada and the U.S. on this measure.

What about closer to home? When asked to rate “the economy in your local area” from 1 (very weak) to 7 (very strong) , Canada comes in 7th out of 24, after the same four countries who outscored us on the first question, plus Singapore and China. The number is lower (44 per cent) than on the first question, but the scale of measurement is different, so I don’t attach much meaning to that. Canadians’ opinions have held steady on both questions for about two years, well ahead of Americans’ opinions on the same questions and, with Germans’, at the top of the G8.

Ah. But do we expect the economy to improve during the next half-year? Here Canada falls only in the middle of the pack, at 14th out of 24 countries. Even Americans are likelier to expect a stronger economy than we are. And Canadian expectations have fallen noticeably: whereas an average of more than 25 per cent said in the second half of 2010 that they expected the economy to improve, now fewer than 20 per cent had the same expectation in the most recent six months leading up to this latest report. This is one of the steepest declines in the Ipsos poll during the past two years.

So Canadians rank near the top of the world in their belief that they benefit from a strong national economy. They’re not quite as sure the economy in their local region is strong, but there’s still a lot of perceived strength. These are the sorts of numbers that incumbent governments find encouraging, because good times tend to make governments hard to beat.

But there’s that sagging sense of optimism about the future to consider. This can play in two, contradictory ways: it can help incumbents because there’s a sense that it’s rough out there and voters should stick with an incumbent; or it can help opposition parties because there’s a sense that good times will soon end and it’s time for a change. Which of those two effects wins out is up to the skill of the political players.


 
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