Stephen Harper's Conservatives have gained their strongest lead over the Liberals since first taking power in 2006, and have edged ahead in support on almost every key issue, according to a new Strategic Counsel poll.

"It's a cold shower for Liberal election plans," the Strategic Counsel's Peter Donolo told Wednesday.

When respondents were asked which party they would vote for, nearly 40 per cent said they would back the Conservatives (percentage-point change from a Jan. 10-13 poll in brackets):

  • Conservatives: 39 per cent (+3)
  • Liberals: 27 per cent (-3)
  • NDP: 12 per cent (same)
  • Green Party: 12 per cent (+2)
  • Bloc Quebecois: 10 per cent (-1)

CTV's Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife said that Liberal Leader Stephane Dion was pushing for an election Tuesday, and was considering voting down the federal budget in March.

"He happens to believe that if Canadians see him in an election campaign, they'll like him and elect him as prime minister," said Fife.

"Of course, Liberal MPs have a different view of that. They believe that the party will get slaughtered in an election campaign, so they're telling him to please hold off and wait until it looks advantageous for the Liberal party to actually win."

Donolo noted that the Conservatives have only been in power for two years, and the public usually demands a change in government after a far longer stretch in office.

The survey, conducted between Feb. 14-17 for CTV and The Globe and Mail, also suggests that voters in Ontario are largely responsible for driving up Conservative support.

In Ontario, the Conservatives have overtaken the Liberals for the first time since July 2006, when the Liberals were at 39 per cent and the Tories at 41 percent. Here are the current standings in Ontario (percentage-point change from a Jan. 10-13 poll in brackets):

  • Conservatives: 42 per cent (+5)
  • Liberals: 34 per cent (-5)
  • Green Party: 13 per cent (-1)
  • NDP: 11 per cent (-1)

"This is a significant lead -- it's an eight-point lead," noted Donolo.

But he also said that, considering the national results, the Conservatives are only at the low end of the spectrum for what they would need to win a majority government.

"Thirty-nine per cent is only flirting with majority government territory," he said.

Donolo also pointed out that "this is more a picture of how the horses are standing at the starting gate, not at the finish line" -- meaning an election campaign could drastically affect the numbers.

Most Canadians seem content with the current minority government -- 60 per cent feel that Canada is on the right track, with 28 per cent answering believing it's on the wrong track.

The Conservatives have also taken a lead over the Liberals when it comes to dealing with key issues:

  • When respondents were asked which party would best be able to manage the economy during an economic slowdown, 38 per cent said the Conservatives and 25 per cent said the Liberals;
  • Thirty-six per cent of respondents thought the Conservatives were best able to manage the Afghanistan mission, compared with 21 per cent for the Liberals;
  • On the question of which party has the best plan for Canada's military and defence, 37 per cent answered Conservative and 19 per cent Liberal;
  • As for who would spend taxpayers' money most wisely, 32 per cent said Conservative and 14 per cent Liberal; and,
  • When asked which party's values most reflected their own, 28 per cent said Conservative and 21 per cent Liberal.

Donolo said the low numbers for the Liberals may be a result of the public not fully understanding their positions on the issues.

"I think the Liberals being an opposition party in a minority government makes the situation even more difficult for them," said Donolo. "They kind of whip-saw between opposing the government and having to vote to keep it in office, and that ... makes it difficult for them to create a firm impression on the public."

The Liberals had a very slight lead on the Conservatives on the environment: 17 per cent said the Liberals would be better able to tackle climate change, compared with 16 per cent for the Conservatives.

Twenty-seven per cent also believed the Conservatives had a "hidden agenda," and only 20 per cent thought the same for the Liberals. However, 22 per cent felt the Conservatives had the highest standards of ethics and honesty, with the Liberals at 10 per cent.

Liberal Finance Critic John McCallum, speaking on CTV's Mike Duffy Live Wednesday before he had seen the complete poll results, said he believes the economy will become a major issue for the Conservatives.

"What I see in my riding and elsewhere in Ontario is growing concern about the economy, and the hemorrhaging of jobs, especially in manufacturing," he said. "And the finance minister has the nerve to lash out at the Ontario government while doing nothing himself to provide direct support for manufacturers. Support is what's needed, and that's what the government is not doing."

Technical notes

  • The poll was conducted between Feb. 14-17 by The Strategic Counsel for CTV and The Globe and Mail.
  • The national sample size is 1,000 people and the margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
  • In Ontario, 383 people were sampled with a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
  • Results are based on tracking among a proportionate national sample of Canadians 18 years of age or older.