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Trudeau Government, Canadian Foreign Policy, and Public Opinion: A One-Year Assessment

Trudeau Government, Canadian Foreign Policy, and Public Opinion: A One-Year Assessment
6 September 2015: Hundreds gather for a rally in Vancouver organized by the local Kurdish community to call on Ottawa to allow more Syrian refugees into the country.DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS

By Mathieu Landriault

With an approval rate oscillating at around 70% and voting intentions at around 50%, it is fair to say that the Trudeau government has enjoyed wide public support during its first year in power. However, overall positive impressions do not necessarily imply that the Canadian population is supportive of all governmental policies and decisions.

Foreign policy is one of those domains of governmental activity where public preferences can vary greatly from overall support for a government. In other words, one can support a government without approving of its foreign policy. Likewise, the very nature of a question can yield differences in opinion: asking about general preferences (do you support using force abroad?) is not the same as asking about specific events and actors (do you support a bombing campaign against ISIS?). This phenomenon is underlined, for example, in a recent study that I have undertaken: a plurality of Canadians supported 12 out of 13 decisions/events of the Harper government’s foreign policy after its re-election in May 2011, including two airstrike campaigns, sanctions against Iran and Russia, and signing free trade agreements.

The first year of the Trudeau government has generated interesting events/decisions which, in turn, have attracted the attention of polling companies. If one looks at the 14 publicly available polls on foreign matters conducted by Angus Reid, Forum Research, Abacus, and Nanos Research (see links at the end of this blog), three events or decisions star as the main subjects: the Syrian refugee plan, the anti-ISIS mission, and the Saudi arms deal. Of course, wording and question formats varied. Nonetheless, this provides a glimpse into the popularity of the Trudeau government’s international policy. Surprisingly, the majority of polls have proven to be unfavorable towards government decisions (8 to 6). Out of these three major events, the Saudi arms deal met with the most unambiguous opposition, with a mere 30% in favour according to Nanos Research in late January and only 19% according to Angus Reid in early February.

There is, however, one particular observation worthy of note: contrary to the Saudi arms deal, the polls regarding the Syrian refugee plan and the anti-ISIS mission were conducted after these decisions were implemented. As a result, and in both cases, a popular reluctance to back government proposals in their early stages is obvious. Four of these polls opposed either the Syrian refugee plan or the reorientation of the ISIS mission in November 2015, with Canadians actually supporting these initiatives in only two polls. The Trudeau government’s political messaging, however, seems quite effective at reversing this tide. Indeed, during and after the implementation of the Syrian refugee plan (a process taking months), opinion polls yielded a completely different picture with two-thirds of the polls in favour (4 to 2). The same happened with the ISIS mission.

Moreover, knowledge seemed to have an effect on support. Respondents were most supportive of these two initiatives whenever the questions asked provided details on the given policy. Support for the ISIS mission reorientation climbed to 74% in an Abacus survey while Nanos Research found 60% of respondents agreeing with the Syrian refugee plan five months after its onset.

Many factors can account for these changing sentiments. For example, the Paris attacks perpetrated on 13 November 2015 moved public opinion closer to backing coercive actions against ISIS. However, these poll numbers are also indicative of the pragmatic and effective work done by the Trudeau government to explain its policies to the general public and to change course when needed. Support increased for the Syrian refugee plan when the government backed away from its initial idea of welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas to settle on a more realistic timeline.

Efficient political messaging will become crucial as more general promises become specific, most notably on peace operations and CO2 emissions targets. It’s one thing to support peace operations generally; supporting a specific mission might be a completely different story, especially one that proves to be perilous or cause casualties. The Trudeau government’s skillful political messaging might prove even more crucial during year 2…

Polls on the anti-ISIS mission can be consulted here, here, here, here, here and here.

Polls on the Syrian refugee plan can be accessed here, here, here, here, here and here.

Polls on the Saudi arms deal can be accessed here and here.

Mathieu Landriault teaches in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa as well as being an associate researcher at the Center for Interuniversity Research on the International Relations of Canada and Quebec (CIRRICQ). Dr. Landriault studies sovereignty and security issues in the Canadian Arctic and the ideational structures of Canadian foreign policy. The nature and influence of the media and public opinion on Canadian Arctic policy and foreign policy are two specific areas of interest.

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