By CAMPBELL CLARK
Monday, August 15, 2005 Updated at 5:33 AM EDT
From Monday's Globe and Mail
Ottawa — After dominating Canadians' political concerns in the spring, the sponsorship scandal has virtually receded from the public agenda, with traditional social-issue concerns once again top of mind, according to a new poll conducted by The Strategic Counsel for The Globe and Mail and CTV.
"What you are seeing is a normalization of the public-opinion agenda," said Allan Gregg, chairman of The Strategic Counsel. "And to some extent that was predictable. Event-driven issues can't sustain the public-opinion agenda for any length of time. And that's exactly what the Liberals were counting on, and that's exactly what's transpired."
Only 2 per cent of Canadians picked the sponsorship scandal as the most important issue facing the country -- a steep decline since May, when 23 per cent rated the scandal as most important. Now, health care tops the list, with 16 per cent viewing it as most important, with other social issues also seen as a major concern.
While the anger over sponsorship could come back with new events, such as the report into the scandal to be issued in the winter by Mr. Justice John Gomery, it appears that the worst is over for the Liberals, Mr. Gregg said.
The Liberals' strategy of doing everything they had to do to weather the crisis -- making a budget deal with the NDP, handing a cabinet job to Tory defector Belinda Stronach and announcing billions in spending -- appears to have paid off.
The Liberals continued a slow rebound in Quebec, where they rose in popularity by three percentage points since July, and now have the backing of 31 per cent.
That's still 15 points behind the Bloc Québécois, at 46 per cent, but no longer at a basement level of 16 per cent, where they felt threatened that the Conservatives might replace them as the primary federalist option.
Overall national support for the parties remain virtually unchanged since July -- the Liberals had the support of 36 per cent, the Conservatives 28 per cent, and the NDP 17 per cent.
But the disappearance of sponsorship anger could spell trouble for Conservative Leader Stephen Harper if it becomes clear that he missed his best opportunity for unseating his Liberal rivals.
Mr. Harper refused an immediate attempt to bring down the Liberal government, proposed by the Bloc Québécois just after Groupaction president Jean Brault's testimony in the scandal inquiry became public. By the time Mr. Harper got another chance during the May 19 budget vote, Prime Minister Paul Martin had lured Ms. Stronach to cross the floor from the Tories to the Liberal cabinet -- the vote that allowed his minority to survive.
Mr. Gregg said that could explain why a June poll found that Mr. Harper's popularity had fallen most among strong Conservatives in the Prairies. "That's the sentiment, that this guy has blown it," he said. "There's a feeling that we had a great chance and this guy wasn't politically astute enough to take advantage of it."
The sponsorship scandal rocketed to the top of the public agenda in early May, when a similar poll by The Strategic Counsel found that 23 per cent of Canadians rated it the most important issue facing Canada -- higher than health care.
That came only weeks after Mr. Brault's damaging revelations of kickbacks to Liberals for sponsorship contracts during the Gomery inquiry, which opened the floodgates for a series of other allegations and admissions.
"I believe that the Liberals' worst day was the day that Jean Brault testified. Even with the Gomery report, it's going to be a lot more nuanced than the headlines," Mr. Gregg said.
Concern over the scandal diminished somewhat in a June survey, after weeks of roller-coaster drama over whether Mr. Martin's government would survive. In that poll, 11 per cent rated the scandal the most important issue, but it was topped by government instability, picked as most important by 18 per cent of Canadians.
"That was almost as alarming for the Liberals as when people were fixated specifically on Gomery. A major part of the Liberal brand is that they are the government," Mr. Gregg said. "And that aspect of the brand was in danger of being eroded."
But the list of Canadians' top concerns appears to play into the Liberals' strengths, he said. Economic issues and unemployment are low on the list, while health care, other social issues (12 per cent) and infrastructure and the environment (9 per cent) all rated as major concerns.
The Strategic Counsel poll was based on 1,000 interviews conducted between Aug. 3 and Aug. 7. A sample that size is considered to have a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
TOP TEN KEY ISSUES
QUESTION: What is the most important issue facing Canadians today - that is the one about which you are most concerned?
Health care: 16%
Other social issues: 12%
Economic issues: 7%
Government spending: 5%
Sponsorship inquiry/corruption: 2%
SOURCE: THE STRATEGIC COUNSEL