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Digging beneath the surface of Canadians' 'solid support' of CETA

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Angus Reid Global this week released the results of an online poll it conducted in mid-May looking at support amongst Canadians for CETA, the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (and a handful of other trade-related issues).

On the surface, things look great for CETA, with the poll indicating that 68 per cent of Canadians either strongly (25 per cent) or moderately (43 per cent) support the deal. By contrast, the poll found that only one-tenth of Canadians oppose a trade deal with Europe.

But that top-level result doesn't tell the whole story.

First of all, these results aren't anything new. Polls asking Canadians for their general feelings towards trade with Europe have consistently shown high support, typically in the range of 70 - 80 per cent in favour. And it makes sense; who wouldn't support increased trade with a stable, large, prosperous and generally socially progressive economy? And since the question doesn't actually mention CETA by name, referring instead to "a free trade agreement with the European Union," that general feeling is reflected in the poll.

Interestingly, the results of this latest poll actually indicate that support for CETA is dropping amongst Canadians. A September 2012 Ipsos poll commissioned by the Council of Canadians found that 81 per cent of Canadians supported the deal, with 20 per cent in strong support. An Environics poll commissioned by the Council of Canadians last November, immediately after Prime Minister Harper travelled to Europe to announce an agreement-in-principle, found that support for CETA had dropped to 73 per cent, with 28 per cent strongly supporting the deal. In other words, at least according to these poll results, support for CETA has dropped 13 per cent in the past two years.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. While the Angus Reid poll didn't delve into any detailed questions about CETA's provisions, we know from previous polling that the more Canadians know about the details about the deal -- as opposed to the general feeling towards trade with Europe -- support for CETA falls off a cliff.

In the 2012 Ipsos poll, when respondents were informed that CETA contained a provision that would lead to increased prescription drug costs, almost seven in 10 said they opposed the deal, with 34 per cent indicating strong opposition and 35 per cent indicating moderate opposition.

Likewise, when asked their opinions of specific CETA provisions in the November, 2013 Environics poll, Canadians voiced overwhelming opposition to many elements of the deal. Seventy-seven per cent supported the right of Canadian municipalities to retain "buy local" or other preferential policies in their procurement decisions, which CETA would forbid. Two-thirds of Canadians were opposed to CETA's pharmaceutical patent term extension provisions. The right of European corporations to sue Canadian governments under investor-state dispute settlement for government policies or regulations that they feel unfairly affects their investment or profits was opposed by 54 percent of Canadians. All the details of the poll results are available in our report.

The last piece of notable information contained in this week's poll is that almost a quarter of Canadians don't know whether they support or oppose CETA. Of course, it's not surprising that 22 per cent of respondents couldn't answer the question given the secrecy under which CETA has been negotiated. The Harper government has refused to release any of the texts of negotiations to the public, so everything we know about the deal has come from leaks and a general (and generally unhelpful) summary of the deal that was tabled in the House of Commons last October. Perhaps Canadians are also unclear on their feelings towards a deal that they were told was finished last October, but for which negotiations on substantive issues have continued ever since.

Which brings us to the final, overwhelming response found in the poll from last November. Fully 80 per cent of Canadians agreed "that the federal government should have to hold public hearings across Canada on the Canada-Europe trade deal before it can sign and ratify the deal." Support for public hearings cut across party lines, with even 68 per cent of Conservative voters supporting national public hearings before the deal is signed.

With indications that a final deal on CETA may be announced at the September 25 Canada-EU Summit in Ottawa, it would seem that the Harper government is set to ignore the opinion of four out of five Canadians.

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