Ont. polled public support for bailout of auto industry

The Ontario government did extensive polling to gauge the public’s appetite for a multibillion-dollar Canadian bailout of the troubled auto industry — and got information that closely mirrors how Premier Dalton McGuinty and his cabinet have tried to sell the idea to voters.

TORONTO — The Ontario government did extensive polling to gauge the public’s appetite for a multibillion-dollar Canadian bailout of the troubled auto industry — and got information that closely mirrors how Premier Dalton McGuinty and his cabinet have tried to sell the idea to voters.

Two polls costing $5,662 tracked public support for a joint federal-provincial bailout, assessed people’s familiarity with the plan, and tested four different “messages” to see whether they would affect the result, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press under freedom of information laws.

An online poll conducted Nov. 19 to 25 by Harris-Decima found that public opinion was divided over whether the province or the federal government should provide financial support to the beleaguered auto industry.

Half of the respondents opposed the idea of an Ontario bailout, while 44 per cent supported it.

Public backing for a federal bailout was also split, but almost twice as many people strongly opposed an Ottawa-only plan than strongly supported it.

A slim majority — 52 per cent — said both governments should share the task of providing some kind of support equally, while 35 per cent didn’t want the government to provide any help at all.

However, more respondents said they would back the plan if the U.S. went ahead with a bailout. Fifty-nine per cent said they would support a provincial or federal bailout if key parts of the auto sector would go bankrupt and thousands of jobs would be lost without it.

A few days before the poll was conducted, Ontario Economic Development Minister Michael Bryant said it was imperative that Canada move to help the struggling automakers before the Americans did, which would put it in a better position to negotiate terms and protect Canadian jobs.

But Ontario’s message soon shifted, with McGuinty insisting Dec. 10 that Canada would have to wait for the outcome of the political wrangling south of the border before it could act on its own.

Two days later, federal officials confirmed that Ottawa had been ready to announce its rescue package Dec. 12, but was stalled when the U.S. Senate rejected the US$14-billion rescue bill endorsed by then-president George Bush and congressional Democrats.

The poll also found that an overwhelming majority wanted strings attached to any financial assistance, such as requiring automakers to build vehicles with lower emission standards. Most of those who supported a bailout said they did so because of the “extraordinary circumstances” facing the economy.

Both were messages that McGuinty has repeatedly emphasized in selling the bailout plan.

“It’s really clear that the government tailored its message based on the polling that they did,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Immediately after Ontario and Ottawa jointly announced the bailout plan Dec. 20, another survey was conducted to track how the plan was being received, as well as testing out different arguments to determine if they would swing public opinion about Ontario’s $1.3-billion share of the package.

A Pollara telephone poll, conducted from Dec. 20 to Jan. 29, found that the most effective message that left respondents supportive of the bailout was one that argued the package would stave off bankruptcy now and help the industry restructure to save Ontario jobs.

Conversely, two in five people were opposed to a statement that said the bailout would saddle Ontario with a large deficit that would take years to eliminate.

The premier’s office said it commissioned the research only to make sure it was on the right track.