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Cdns at odds with Harper gov't priorities: Finance Canada focus-group report

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OTTAWA - Public-opinion research for the federal Finance Department suggests key government policies are out of step with Canadians' priorities, including the Northern Gateway project.

Members of focus groups consulted prior to the February budget had "little enthusiasm" for the proposed bitumen pipeline to the British Columbia coast — even those who said they support the controversial project.

And among the 12 groups consulted — from Coquitlam, B.C., to Bridgewater, N.S. — the economy itself was not a top-of-mind concern.

Rather, the groups spontaneously raised education, health care, pensions and veterans as their key issues.

They also called for more processing and refining of Canada's oil resources at home, and to do so in a more environmentally safe manner.

The findings of the January focus groups, commissioned from NRG Research Group, suggest the Harper government's central policy themes — trade and the economy, with an emphasis on energy exports — are resonating less with ordinary Canadians.

"There is little enthusiasm for the (Northern Gateway) project, even among supporters," says a Jan. 25 report on the findings.

"Detractors worry about the environmental consequences in the event of a spill, particularly as a result of a tanker accident off the B.C. coast."

"There is an appreciation that increased market access for oil will be economically beneficial but there is still a desire to do so in a more environmentally safe manner."

The Harper government has made Northern Gateway a central plank of its energy strategy, and has pilloried environmental groups who oppose it, labelling them "radical."

The focus groups, along with a public-opinion survey of 3,000 people, were carried out in advance of the Feb. 11 budget under a $135,000 contract.

The analysis of the 3,000-person survey's raw numbers was conducted internally by the Privy Council Office rather than by the polling firm, under a policy dating from April 2010, and like all other such internal analysis is not routinely made public.

Treasury Board policy requires web posting only of public-opinion analysis commissioned from outside firms.

Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, intended to carry bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to the port of Kitimat, B.C., got the federal cabinet's blessing on June 17 on condition that 209 issues be resolved, including consultations with First Nations.

The project faces stiff opposition from numerous groups, including B.C. First Nations, and must overcome several court challenges.

New Democrat environment critic Megan Leslie said the focus-group report "shows what the NDP has been saying all along, that B.C. MPs, Conservative MPs, are going to have to answer to this."

"There is not support for this project in British Columbia and across Canada," she said in an interview from Halifax.

"It's also really heartening to see that people spontaneously talked about resource development through a sustainable lens. They talked about refining and processing here in Canada. People get it."

Asked for comment on the report, a spokesman for the Finance Department said only that the research helps measure the "evolution" of Canadian attitudes.

"The use of quantitative (telephone survey data) and qualitative (focus group) research allow the Finance Department to get a clearer sense of the evolution of the public mood towards the state of the economy, Canadians' sense of personal economic well-being and government actions in the economic arena," David Barnabe said in an email.

Among the other issues participants raised:

— Canada Pension Plan reform: "This came up more often in Ontario, and the sentiment typically focused on the need to ensure this program is adequately funded."

The government has resisted calls to improve CPP though has endorsed other pension-related reforms. The Ontario government has since promised its own public pension plan.

— Veterans: "Concerns expressed whether enough was being done to help individuals with health/mental issues arising from their military service."

The government faced a barrage of veterans' criticisms over the last year, especially related to military suicides, but says it has improved benefits and care.

— Health care and education "continue to come up regularly in the discussions."

The government has said these are areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, but has promised stable, predictable block funding.

The report also found that lower-income households were less sanguine about the state of the economy than wealthier households, citing few well-paid jobs being generated and saying "the gap between rich and poor is growing."

"Unbalanced or unequal are words that come up frequently to describe the economy for these individuals," says the document. "Participants often stated that economic decisions tended to support the corporate sector more than average families."

Said Leslie: "Canadians have a broader perspective on what the economy is than the Conservatives, (who) talk about their laser-like focus.

"I would actually say that it's an incredibly narrow focus, on their own navel."

The focus groups, two in each community, were conducted in Coquitlam, B.C.; Calgary; Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.; Toronto; Quebec City; and Bridgewater, N.S.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter

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