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Hecklers aside, Trudeau remains popular with younger voters, say pollsters, strategist

By Marco Vigliotti      

'If the young vote turns, some will go to the NDP, but a lot may just stay home,' says Darrell Bricker.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's address to a young workers summit last week in Ottawa was met with protests from some in attendance, who turned their backs to him. Despite the frosty reception, Mr. Trudeau remains largely popular with the age group, according to pollsters. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to attract strong support from large stretches of the Canadian electorate, including younger voters, despite encountering a boisterous protest during a youth workers forum last week in Ottawa, pollsters say.

“Leaving the incidents aside, his current approval level is solid across the demographics and he actually does better with younger people than older people,” Darrell Bricker, CEO of polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs, told The Hill Times.

As Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) appeared for an “armchair discussion” event at the Canadian Labour Congress’ National Young Workers Summit, angry demonstrators yelled at him to keep his promises, called him a liar, and accused the Liberal leader of behaving like his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper.

Several protesters turned their backs to the prime minister during his address to the summit, prompting Mr. Trudeau to declare that he would not respond to questions from those who refused to face him. The prime minister, however, continued to engage with attendees, answering questions and responding to complaints voiced by demonstrators.

The protesters raised a number of grievances about the year-old Trudeau government, including stalled negotiations with public sector unions, lingering problems with the Phoenix pay system, health-care funding targets, and recent remarks from Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) that Canadians should get used to the “job churn” marketplace, marked by short-term employment and multiple career changes.

Although the fracas attracted substantial media attention and unleashed a fresh batch of opining about whether the prime minister was finally losing some of his lustre, Mr. Bricker said nothing suggests Mr. Trudeau is beginning to lose ground with youth voters, who have been identified as a sizeable contingent of his electoral coalition.

“So, while this could be the first signal of something, there’s no evidence that it actually is,” he said.

However, Mr. Bricker warns that the prime minister must be mindful of losing popularity among young voters because of the role they played in ensuring the Liberals’ majority government.

While they backed the Grits in 2015, young voters largely sided with the NDP in 2011 vote, he noted.

In addition to fending off advances from the NDP, the Liberals will also need to ensure young voters remain motivated after they turned out in “unprecedented numbers” to vote in the last election, according to Mr. Bricker.

“If the young vote turns, some will go to the NDP, but a lot may just stay home. Both would be bad for the Liberals,” he said.

According to Elections Canada, 57 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds voted in 2015, compared to about 39 per cent in 2011.

Frank Graves, founder and president of Ekos Research, said polls consistently show the Liberal leader with strong popularity across the demographic divide, with support among age bands varying by only a few percentage points.

This is a stark reversal, he said, from the former Conservative government, which was far more popular with older voters than younger ones.

With the Liberals sitting at roughly 47.5 per cent in recent polls, Mr. Graves said it doesn’t appear Mr. Trudeau is losing any support from the “promiscuous progressive” segment of the electorate that flocked to the party in the last election.

He also noted that current polls largely show the prime minister remains popular with younger voters, despite the reception he received at the workers summit.

“So far, it’s not representative of what we’re seeing in the average younger voters,” he said of the protests.

However, these numbers hardly suggests the prime minister’s grasp on this segment of the electorate is ironclad, according to Mr. Graves.

Rather, Mr. Trudeau must maintain his support among young voters in the coming years if he hopes to win re-election, with millennials set to become a larger voting bloc than baby boomers in the next election, he said.

“I think he’s connecting quite well with younger voters. It’s critical for his continued success that this continues,” said Mr. Graves, who argued that the sub-40 per cent turnout rate among young voters in the 2011 election contributed to the Conservatives’ majority victory.

“They stayed home in droves in 2011, and many of them showed up in 2015. We’ll see if that continues.”

Mr. Graves said that Mr. Trudeau will need to be mindful of how younger people tend to view government policies as favouring older voters, though argued that he had made some progress in addressing these concerns.

But improving economic opportunity remains a pressing issue for the prime minister, with young people expressing grave concerns about access to the labour market and the quality of available jobs, he said.

Briana Broderick, vice-president and grievance officer with the United Steelworkers local 2010, represented the union as a youth delegate at the National Young Workers Summits, and said the protests were largely attributable to Mr. Morneau’s comments about how young voters need to get used to precarious work.

The government, she said, must do more to address the economic concerns of younger Canadians, with the youth unemployment rate sitting at double the overall rate, and rising prices putting home ownership increasingly out of reach.

“I don’t think that you can expect the same turnout of youth voters in the next election if something isn’t done to address it,” she said.

So far, the Liberals have done little to deliver on the party’s central pledge in the 2015 campaign to bring “real change,” said Ms. Broderick, who also voiced complaints about the government’s hardnosed stance in negotiations with public sector unions, what she called a failure to improve environmental protections, and unwillingness to heed the concerns of indigenous communities.

“People expected real change. It’s really disappointing to see it’s the same story,” she charged.

Ms. Broderick said she feels the protest was effective in publicizing serious concerns about the government’s track record, and mused that it appears the prime minister is beginning to lose some of its shine after nearly a year in office.

However, Greg Weston, a principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group and former journalist, said he believes Mr. Trudeau would stand to gain from the incident because of how he ably handled the “disrespectful” protesters.

“I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of Canadians watching that would approve of the prime minister’s performance, and disapprove of the rudeness and disrespect of a few people in the crowd,” he said in an interview.

“I think the prime minister treated them with a lot more respect than they deserved. He treated them with patience and respect, and it’s too bad they didn’t [do] either towards him. I don’t think they gained anything out of that.’

He also cast skepticism on the motivations of the protesters, saying the purported anger on display hasn’t been borne out in public opinion polling, which instead has shown the Liberals with a sizeable and stable lead.

“I haven’t seen any sign in any kind of polling, or any other evidence, that would suggest people are [so] disappointed with this government, from where they were a year ago, that they would behave badly,” he said.

“I think we need to be really suspicious of this particular performance. I don’t see any sign of it being [reflective] of the broader electorate.”

Although he objected to the tactics of the protest, Mr. Weston said the economic anxieties of young people in Canada are palpable, with unemployment among the demographic remaining stubbornly high.

He also noted that the Trudeau family has a storied history of confronting labour protesters, with Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously giving a middle finger salute in 1982 to a group of protesters in Salmon Arm, B.C., who were pelting his train carriage with eggs and rotten tomatoes.

Travelling with the then-prime minister on the train journey were his sons, including Justin.

And although it sparked controversy, the elder Trudeau’s popularity actually increased after the incident, according to Mr. Weston.


The Hill Times

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