Over the past year, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion's approval rating has plummeted across Canada, according to a new Strategic Counsel poll.

The survey, conducted between Jan. 10-13 for CTV and The Globe and Mail, shows that Dion is the only national party leader to show a significant drop in support.

When respondents were asked if they found the leaders favourable, less than half said they had a good impression of Dion (difference between a Jan. 11-14, 2007 poll in brackets):

  • Stephen Harper, Conservatives: 58 per cent (+4)
  • Elizabeth May, Green Party: 56 per cent (-2)
  • Jack Layton, NDP: 55 per cent (-4)
  • Stephane Dion, Liberals: 39 per cent (-20)

"He had a tough year and we saw that in the media coverage, and what we're seeing is that the public's gotten to that," the Strategic Counsel's Peter Donolo told CTV.ca Monday.

"It has to be an issue of concern for him that his negatives are as high as they are, particulary if you look at it more deeply. He's got a higher percentage of people saying he's 'very unfavourable' than Stephen Harper, which is surprising, given that he hasn't been in that government hot seat -- Mr. Harper has."

  • In fact, 25 per cent of people found Dion "very unfavourable" in the survey and 34 per cent "somewhat unfavourable," totalling 61 per cent.
  • For the 39 per cent who approved of Dion, 34 per cent found him "somewhat favourable" but only 5 per cent "very favourable."

By comparison, 19 per cent found Harper "very unfavourable" and 23 per cent "somewhat unfavourable," while 43 per cent answered "somewhat favourable" and 15 per cent "very favourable."

"If there's any encouraging silver lining in this for Mr. Dion, it's that today he's kind of in the position that Stephen Harper was in, back in October 2005 on the eve of that general election," said Donolo.

"He had 58 per cent 'unfavourable,' and 21 per cent of that was 'very unfavourable.' It took an election campaign for Mr. Harper to kind of shed that, so an election campaign does have the possibility of shaking things up in that regard."

Voters don't want an early election

But while Dion has said he could be pushing for a spring election, the poll suggests the vast majority of Canadians would rather avoid going to the polls until Oct. 2009.

Under legislation that passed last summer, general elections are only called every four years in October unless a non-confidence motion is passed.

According to the survey, roughly two in three Canadians want to wait until October (difference between Jan. 10-13, 2007 poll in brackets):

  • October 2009: 66 per cent (+5)
  • Second half of 2008: 15 per cent (same)
  • First half of 2008: 10 per cent (-1)
  • Immediately: 3 per cent (-4)

Meanwhile, Dion's likeability seems to be having little impact on which party Canadians would vote for. The Liberals and Conservatives are still showing similar numbers to what surveys have suggested since last spring (difference between a Dec. 6-9 poll in brackets):

  • Conservatives: 36 per cent (+4)
  • Liberals: 30 per cent (+1)
  • NDP: 14 per cent (-2)
  • Bloc Quebecois: 11 per cent (+1)
  • Greens: 10 per cent (-3)

Although the Conservatives are six points above the Liberals, the margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 per cent.

"The Conservatives have a very difficult time breaking out of the mid-30s. A lot's going to depend on the election campaign," said Donolo.

Concern over the economy

If the opposition parties do pull the plug on the government and trigger an election soon, the economy could become a major campaign issue.

The poll suggests that 12 per cent of Canadians feel the economy is the most important issue facing the country, up 3 points from a July 12-15 survey. Health care also had 12 per cent, but that's a decrease of 4 points. The environment remains the top issue at 22 per cent.

In Ontario, 16 per cent of respondents felt that the economy was the most important issue, up from 5 per cent in July.

"That's a three-fold increase. That's what's driving the national numbers," said Donolo. "It's clear that the constant drumbeat of negative news about the economy is starting to sink in with Canadians."

When respondents were asked about their thoughts on the direction of the economy, a growing number believed it was getting worse (difference between a Nov. 8-11, 2007 poll in brackets):

  • Getting stronger: 18 per cent (-13)
  • Staying the same: 51 per cent (+8)
  • Getting worse: 28 per cent (+6)

Technical notes

  • The poll was conducted between Jan. 10-13 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, 379 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.