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Poll finds Liberals with ‘huge brand equity’ in Atlantic as MacKay rules out Tory leadership bid

By Tim Naumetz      

Though she’s not eligible to run, Rona Ambrose has strong support to continue leading the party: pollster Graves.

Peter MacKay and his wife, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, at his retirement party in 2015. He ruled out a return to politics to run for Conservative leadership this week. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

A new poll has found Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government at historic highs in Atlantic Canada, throwing cold water on the federal Conservatives during their foray into Halifax this week in an attempt to begin rebuilding support following the party’s 2015 election defeat in the region.

Fully 74 per cent of electors in the Atlantic provinces, which voted Liberals into all 32 House of Commons seats in the region last October, are satisfied with the performance of the federal government, a quarterly survey by Corporate Research Associates of Halifax suggests. It breaks down to 63 per cent of respondents who were mostly satisfied and 11 per cent who were completely satisfied.

The just-completed poll of 1,500 voting-age Canadians across the four provinces found the same share of decided respondents, 74 per cent, would vote Liberal if a federal election were held today, with 15 per cent choosing the Conservative party and only seven per cent saying they would vote NDP.

Corporate Research Associates provided results of the survey to The Hill Times on Tuesday, a day after the Conservative party’s best-known face in the region, former MP Peter MacKay, announced he would not be entering the party’s leadership contest for family reasons after having served 18 years in Parliament before he gave up his Commons seat prior to the general election last year.

The poll found 20 per cent of Atlantic Canadians were dissatisfied with the performance of the federal government, with two per cent neither satisfied nor dissatisfied and three per cent who did not know. Of the 20 per cent, 13 per cent were mostly dissatisfied and seven per cent were completely dissatisfied.

While Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) led in a question about voter leader preferences, with 65 per cent of respondents saying they would most prefer him as prime minister of Canada, Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, who is ineligible to run for the permanent leadership post under the party’s current rules, came second at 11 per cent.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was preferred as prime minister by only six per cent of respondents, one point below the seven per cent who said they were undecided. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who grew up in Nova Scotia and first ran for a Commons seat in the province was preferred for prime minister by five per cent of the respondents.

The quarterly survey by Corporate Research, which has been polling Atlantic Canadians on government and political leanings for more than two decades, indicates the Conservative party, whoever wins the leadership vote next May, faces tough sledding as it struggles to regain lost electoral territory.

“Right now, just based on what we see, there continues to be huge brand equity in the Liberal party, and the provincial governments are feeling that as well, with the exception of Newfoundland; the world’s a different place right now in Newfoundland,” said Corporate Research president Margaret Brigley, referring to a public backlash in Newfoundland and Labrador against severe Liberal government measures aimed at balancing the province’s budget.

“The federal Liberals continue to enjoy historic high levels of satisfaction and voter support in the region,” Ms. Brigley said.

In light of the survey results, Ms. Brigley said it would be tough to predict whether the Conservative party’s strategy of holding a caucus session in Halifax Sept. 13 and 14 to boost its image would help the party in the long haul to the next federal election in 2019.

“I’m not sure. I think it’s an interesting move on their part, because they’re certainly going into an area where the Atlantic region itself right now is a Liberal stronghold,” Ms. Brigley said after detailing the poll results in a phone interview with The Hill Times.

The annual quarterly survey was to be released this week. The overall telephone survey, including calls to cell phone listings, has a margin of error of 2.5 per cent 19 out of 20 times, with a slightly higher margin of error for the samplings broken down by province.

The survey also polled elector opinion on provincial government politics and other issues.

With MacKay out, all eyes on Raitt

Although Mr. MacKay finally ruled himself out of the leadership contest after several months of weighing family commitments against longstanding political ambitions, another MP with roots in Nova Scotia, Cape Bretoner and former transport minister Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.), is expected to cap her own months of preparation by entering the race in the next few weeks at the latest.

Ekos pollster Frank Graves, however, told The Hill Times on Tuesday none of the remaining candidates have the stature of Mr. MacKay, save for Ms. Ambrose herself, who has steadily risen in elector esteem following her caucus election to the post of interim leader last November.

Mr. Graves referred to a recent Ekos poll that found Ms. Ambrose the first leadership choice for a significant numbers of Conservative supporters even before Ekos and other polling firms began listing her as a potential leader along with the five candidates who have registered for the contest to this point, and others who have shown signs of interest.

“If you look at our numbers, Rona got four or five per cent and she wasn’t even listed as a candidate; that’s huge,” said Mr. Graves.

“Her approval rating has more than doubled…I personally believe that the Conservative party’s best chance of success in 2019 would be Rona Ambrose,” Mr. Graves said.

“They have to figure a way to walk back from this, and from the data I have, there’s a good chance she’s their best bet,” he added.

“MacKay was leading, and he’s taken himself out; That’s a huge disruption in this and it must give a great boost to people like [former Treasury Board president Tony] Clement; he’s really not going anywhere, in my opinion, he’s well down the list,” said Mr. Graves.

While Mr. Graves identified Ms. Raitt as a potentially popular choice, along with Ms. Ambrose, he predicted reality TV star Kevin O’Leary would draw attention and support as the “Donald Trump Lite” of Canada if he decides to follow up on earlier interest in the race.

Mr. Graves said he believes Mr. O’Leary—a media darling at the Manning Centre preview of potential Conservative leadership candidates earlier this year—would be a serious leadership contender if he does decide to enter.

“I think he would be, because he’s articulate. There seems to be this thing that in this period of economic stagnation, parts of the public are really attracted to those people who are really successful, which is part of Trump’s appeal: ‘this guy really figured it out, maybe we’ve got to take some lessons from him,’” said Mr. Graves as he speculated on Conservative party thinking.


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