Only 32% of Canadians back PM on Mideast

Stephen Harper’s decision to support Israel in the current Middle East crisis appears out of step with the majority of Canadians, according to a new poll.

The survey finds that a majority of Canadians want their government to be neutral on the conflict and that Mr. Harper has tilted away from the traditional Canadian position. Moreover, they believe that the Conservative government is taking its cues from U.S. President George W. Bush.

The Globe and Mail/CTV poll also shows that Canadians are paying close attention to the conflict, and that Quebeckers are particularly concerned about the shift.

“What you’re struck by is how unpopular the position he has taken is, especially in the province of Quebec,” said Allan Gregg, chairman of the Strategic Counsel, the firm that conducted the poll.

According to the poll, 45 per cent of voters disagree with Mr. Harper’s support of Israel’s actions, while 32 per cent support it, and 23 per cent don’t know or neither agree nor disagree. In Quebec, 61 per cent are against the Harper position, with only 17 per cent behind it.

The poll also found that 77 per cent of Canadians surveyed say Canada should be neutral in the current conflict, with 16 per cent voicing support for Israel and just 1 per cent backing Hezbollah. Fifty-one per cent say the position represents a move away from previous Canadian governments’ views.

Mr. Gregg said the results may be a political warning for Mr. Harper, although he noted that the Conservative Party’s popularity has stayed relatively stable in the wake of the conflict.

“It doesn’t seem to be affecting their bottom line right now,” Mr. Gregg said.

“But when you start digging in to the substantive policy positions he has taken, especially on foreign policy positions, you see how incendiary they can become if that debate began to roil above the summertime consciousness . . . The position Canadians want us to take is decidedly neutral.”

On a related question, 53 per cent say they believe Mr. Harper has backed Israel because the position is in line with that of Mr. Bush.

Another 19 per cent say the government’s stand has been taken out of principle, while 10 per cent say they think Mr. Harper has domestic political concerns on his mind. In Quebec, 72 per cent of respondents say they believe the Canadian government is aping Mr. Bush.

A poll earlier this month also found flagging support for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, with 56 per cent opposing the mission, up 15 percentage points from March.

Mr. Gregg said Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe should be “wringing his hands with glee” at the results.

“If he’s looking at these same numbers, he will try to stir it up,” Mr. Gregg said. “And if he does stir it up — and the salience of this issue becomes higher — there’s no question the Conservatives will lose support.”

Liberals, too, would find the issue to be an Achilles heel for the Tories.

On the political horse race, the poll finds that the Tories are hovering around 38 per cent of the electorate, up two points from the January election. The Liberals are supported by 29 per cent, down one point, while the New Democrats have dropped three points to 15 per cent. In Quebec, the Conservatives have lost two percentage points from the 25 per cent they earned on election day, while the Liberals have held steady at 21 per cent and the BQ is up one point to 43 per cent.

“We would have a déjà vu election if it was held last weekend,” Mr. Gregg said.

However, Mr. Gregg said the Middle East could become a voting issue for some Canadians if Mr. Harper finds himself too far away from Canadian values.

“If he’s consistently on the wrong side of the zeitgeist about what Canada should be doing in the world, it’s only a matter of time before people say, ‘He sees the world in a different way than me,’ especially if he sees that world in the way George Bush sees it.”

The poll of 1,000 Canadians was taken July 27 to 30 and is accurate to within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

The poll also shows that Canadians want to participate in an international effort to resolve the problem. A full 57 per cent said they would back Canadian troops taking part in an international force.

Finally, Canadians are also paying attention to the issue, with 72 per cent saying they are following the events closely.