David Eby has spent his early days as B.C. premier blitzing the electorate with a series of announcements designed to boost flagging public confidence in the New Democrat administration’s handling of big issues like crime, health care and affordability.
But is it working?
There’s only really one way to check, absent calling an early election: Public opinion polling.
That’s why Angus Reid’s first premier approval survey last week is worth noting. In it, Eby scores an approval rating of 46 per cent – a solid 10 points lower than the average of his predecessor John Horgan.
It puts Eby at the middle of the pack of Canadian premiers, and only slightly ahead of Alberta’s controversial new premier Danielle Smith.
First, the disclaimer.
Polls are an inexact measurement, at best. They have major limitations (in this case, it’s a survey of 5,030 Canadian adults, of which only 656 were located in B.C.). Sometimes they are flat-out wrong compared to election results. But they remain the best, and only, tool for an incumbent government to gauge reaction to its policies and politicians in near real-time.
Second, the context.
Only 26 per cent of people polled disapproved or strongly disapproved of Eby’s performance, which is the lowest of any Canadian premier. That’s because 28 per cent of people said they were “not sure” how they feel about the new premier at all – a whopping six times larger than the average uncertainty rate for other premiers.
The main takeaway is that many British Columbians haven’t got to know Eby at all, and aren’t comfortable forming an opinion of him yet. The key then for the Eby government is to introduce the 46-year-old rookie premier to the wider public, as much as possible.
So far, that’s manifested itself in a series of carefully staged photo ops, including last week when media were invited to watch Eby and his wife Cailey take their two kids skating at Robson Square in Vancouver.
Eby strategists have leaned in on highlighting the premier’s family, at the premier’s request. Cailey is smart and charismatic. Their kids, Ezra and Iva, are photogenic and sweet. The images of Eby as an ordinary father do a lot to round out the pre-existing public sentiment from the last five years that Eby is a serious suit-wearing lawyer focused on boring topics like auto insurance and money laundering.
But there is a downside to putting the premier’s family out there as well.
Toxicity towards politicians is worse than ever. There is also simmering anger over the crises B.C. is facing. The massive wait times at emergency rooms led to a backlash of sorts over Eby’s skating event, with some people questioning why the premier was out enjoying time with his family while other families were waiting 13 hours to get their sick kids seen at BC Children’s Hospital. The criticism is unfair. But it will continue to happen (on a variety of topics) whether it is fair or not.
There will even be some who view Eby as using his family as a prop. And before New Democrats get too sanctimonious about that particular argument, they should remember that many NDPers accused former premier Christy Clark of doing just that a decade ago when she chose, as a single mother, to bring her young teenage son Hamish to her events.
All of this represents a double-edged sword for Eby.
He has to introduce himself to voters, to boost himself as the brand of the governing party. That’s important because New Democrats have for half a decade relied on the popularity of their leader to overcome public dissatisfaction with their handling of major issues.
A reminder of that came Monday through another Angus Reid survey, which found 84 per cent of people polled thought government was doing a poor or very poor job on poverty and homelessness. Another 81 per cent thought similarly on housing affordability, 78 per cent on the overdose crisis, 77 per cent on cost of living, 71 per cent on public safety and 70 per cent on health care.
Those are eye-wateringly bad numbers for the NDP.
But they are offset by 47 per cent of people who say they’d still vote NDP if an election were held today, compared to 32 per cent for the rival BC Liberals. And Liberal leader Kevin Falcon only hit 22 per cent popularity, according to Angus Reid’s numbers.
That’s good news for New Democrats and for Eby. Even if the new premier has yet to become as popular as his predecessor, and even if voters are upset at how his party is handling the issues, they’d still prefer voting for him over the other guy. For now, anyway.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.