Saturday, February 26, 2011

Is it health care, stupid? The issues Canadians care about

With the caveat that all polling should be taken with grains of salt (particularly those with findings I don't like) Nanos has some interesting new numbers on the issues that Canadians are ranking as their top concerns.

He lists five that are at the top of the list, with the change from December 2010 in brackets:

Health care: 22.9% (+2.2%)
Economy/Jobs: 20.2% (-2.1%)
The environment: 10.3% (+2.3%)
Education: 5.4% (-)
Debt/deficit: 5.2% (+o.4%)

I'm going to focus on the top two, because I think they represent compelling choices for the Liberals and Conservatives.

It's widely-held (but unfortunate based on the historical evidence) that when economic management is the issue, the Conservatives tend to do better. It's not just in Canada, and it's just one of those things. Not saying we should cede this ground, just that we should start with that reality recognized.

That's why we see the Conservatives trying to shift the debate and discussion these days to the economy: if they can frame the debate on economy and jobs, they see that as ground on which they can succeed. If that's the ballot question, they feel Canadians will turn to them.

That's why we see statements chiding the opposition to focus on the economy, calling the recovery in jeopardy, warning opposition shenanigans could put jobs in jeopardy. They're folding corporate tax cuts into this as well: raising them will cost jobs, they warn. On the other side, there's last week's cross-country stimulus re-announcement tour, and the millions in PMO-directed economic action plan ads.

It's a simple recipe: stoke a little fear on the economy to make the issue of more concern to Canadians, then paint your opponents as dangerous on the issue and tout your own record of achievement, positioning yourselves as the logical, and safe choice. Clearly, the Conservatives want an economic debate: they feel on solid ground there.

But as the Nanos numbers show, the economy/jobs isn't the only issue that is of top concern to Canadians. Indeed, by just a few points, it's not even the top concern currently. Their top concern is actually health care.

Despite health care being consistently at or near the top of concerning issues for Canadians, you don't hear a lot of the parties in Ottawa talking about it. Certainly not the Conservatives, and with good reason: if the economy/jobs are a Conservative issue, health care tends to be more of a Liberal issues. Which means there is an opportunity here for the Liberals to seize the day by addressing the concerns of Canadians on health care, and highlighting Conservative inaction on the file (remember wait times, the infamously forgotten fifth Harper priority?).

We have seen some selected health-care relates initiatives from the Liberals so far. The signature Liberal policy proposal to date, the Family Care Plan, speaks to helping Canadians support ill loved ones. Also related are proposals around ways to attract more doctors and nurses to under-served rural areas, and a national food policy to promote healthy living.

It's a pretty good start. What's needed is unifying messaging around a vision for health care in the 21st century, analysis and criticism of Conservative failure on the file, and a concerted effort to elevate the profile of the health care issue in the national debate.

As I said, I'm not arguing we cede the economy/jobs issue to the Conservatives; far from it. We have a good story to tell on this issue, there are Conservative vulnerabilities, and our policy on corporate taxes is the right one for the times. Don't give them an inch.

But we should also try to raise the profile and shift the debate towards health care, an issue that isn't just a good Liberal issue, but also the issue Canadians are most concerned about. The Conservatives want to change the channel to the economy. Let's try to fight from what, for us, is a position of strength.

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WhigWag said...

and we've got to watch them like hawks & call them on their bull when they make announcements that they ARE doing something on the health front, even little ones, cuz often it's a LIE:

Skinny Dipper said...

One of my hidden rules of important issues is that the top issue is never the most important issue. Never campaign on the most important issue. In this case, it's health care. It doesn't mean that a political party should never mention health care. It should only do so under another topic. For example, we could have better economic performance which would give Canadians more jobs if we had better health care. Political parties and their leaders are supposed to lead the discussion on what they think are important issues. If one depends on the polls, then Canadians will not hear anything new from their politicians.

Alison said...

With regard to the economy, I would like to see Liberal ads that thank Paul Martin for our stable banking system and our previous surplus. In addition, ads showing Flaherty bringing in relaxed mortgage regulations only to reverse course when he realized that it was a huge cock up and ads showing Harpie and his side-kick denying there was a recession. I don't think we should give them a pass on the economy meme.

My blood pressure just went up. One of those action plan ads are using up our tax dollars during the Oscars.