Liberals' 1st budget didn't resonate with public, internal focus group suggested

The Trudeau government got little traction with the Canadian public from the big spending economic stimulus measures in its 2016 budget, according to newly released federal focus group data.

Although the focus group participants may not have known a lot about the key measures in that first Liberal budget, their opinions closely aligned with some of the big ticket items outlined a couple of months later in the fall fiscal update and in the Liberals' second budget tabled last month.

Environics Research found that few Canadians considered Ottawa's early moves to enrich monthly child benefits or expand the Canada Pension Plan as something intended to boost the economy.

Environics conducted a series of 10 focus groups of eight to 10 people each for the Department of Finance between Sept. 19 and 22 to get a sense of people's attitudes about the Canadian economy.

Six months after the government's first budget announced billions in infrastructure spending, the focus group found that "few could recall any specific government of Canada measures in recent months to bolster the economy, aside from some vague recollection of actions related to trade."

There was also a low level of awareness when it came to the enhanced Canada Pension Plan Ottawa negotiated with the provinces and the Canada child benefit — a centrepiece initiative of the Trudeau government's first budget.

"Some indicated that they recalled these initiatives, but they did not consider them measures that were designed specifically to boost the economy," the focus group report states.

Housing investments popular

When it came to infrastructure projects that would help jolt the economy, on the other hand, focus group participants supported investments in affordable housing, clean energy, roads and public transit.

And the Liberal's second budget, delivered March 22, committed $11.2 billion over 11 years for a national housing strategy.

Focus group members also offered a mixed view on the idea of the government selling off federal assets such as airports to pay for the new infrastructure projects. This was an idea championed by the government's economic advisory council but which ultimately was not included in the spring budget.

Environics says the idea was "received with mixed reviews" by focus group participants, who were concerned about the loss of "future revenue potential" and could not think of many examples where selling off public assets had been successful.

Middle class message resonates

There was also a lot of support for the Liberals' ubiquitous message of helping the "middle class and those working hard to join it."

Environics found that messages directed at the middle class tested well and that "many felt these kinds of messages were directed at people like themselves."

Focus group members also liked messages with a focus on job creation and diversity for their positive tone, according to a report on the findings that was posted online.

The cost of the research, which also included a telephone survey of 2,000 Canadians, was $147,000.