Bill C-51: Support declines after months of protest, but strong majority still backs anti-terror legislation

Bill C-51: Support declines after months of protest, but strong majority still backs anti-terror legislation
Number of people who say the legislation “goes too far” nearly doubles since February.

May 25, 2015 – Vocal opposition to, painstaking review of, and widespread protest against Bill C-51 have had some negative impact on Canadian support for the anti-terror legislation, but a clear majority still say they favour it.

Nationally, nearly three-in-four (72%) Canadians polled in a new public opinion survey by the Angus Reid Institute say they support the legislation, which was introduced in late January and has now passed third reading in the House of Commons, including one-quarter (24%) who say they “strongly” support it.

That said, heightened awareness of the legislation has led to greater concern among those who are more engaged on the issue.

Key Findings:

  • Majority support for Bill C-51 has softened, dropping ten points from 82 per cent in February of this year to 72 per cent.
  • The number of Canadians polled who say the angus reid institutelegislation goes “too far” has nearly doubled since the Angus Reid Institute last polled on this issue, from one-in-five (19%) to more than one-third (36%). That said, the plurality continue to be satisfied C-51 strikes the right balance.
  • More Canadians (58%) have confidence in law enforcement agencies to appropriately interpret specific pieces of the legislation, namely “promoting terrorism” than those who don’t (42%).
  • Stephen Harper is seen as the best federal leader to deal with the issue of domestic terrorism.

Support for C-51

There is still strong majority support for Bill C-51, but the anti-terror legislation does not meet with quite the overwhelming endorsement it enjoyed when it was first announced.

The second wave of polling on this issue from the Angus Reid Institute pegs current public support at 72 per cent (24% strongly support) while 28 per cent of Canadians are opposed.  This represents a 10-point decline in support from the 82 per cent reflected in our first poll taken in February and a corresponding increase in the levels of opposition.

Looking at the survey findings across major demographic groups provides some insight into where public support has softened:

  • Regionally, the decline in public support for C-51 is most marked in British Columbia, where this most recent poll shows the lowest levels of public support. It is now at 60 per cent, down 19 points from the 79 per cent recorded in February.
  • Elsewhere in the country, support for the anti-terror legislation ranges from 70 per cent in the Atlantic region (down 16 points from February) to 80 per cent in Manitoba-Saskatchewan (down three points).

angus reid institute

  • There also appears to be a growing generation gap in perspectives on the anti-terror legislation. Among younger Canadians (those under age 35), support now stands at 57 per cent, also a 19 point decline since February. A closer look shows an even split among young men (51% support, 49% oppose) while more young women support the legislation (64%). Support for C-51 is 20 points higher among middle-aged and older Canadians with more moderate declines over these three months (see detailed tables at the end of this release).
  • Socio-economically, there is a continued skew by educational and income strata with higher support noted among Canadians with lower household incomes and less formal education and lower support at the higher ends (a 61 – 39% in favour split among university-educated Canadians).

Support remains for main elements of C-51:

Key individual elements of the anti-terror legislation continue to enjoy majority public support, although here again, there has been some minor softening since February:

  • “Make it illegal to promote terrorism, with sentences of up to five years”: 87% support versus 91% in February
  • “Block Internet websites that promote terrorism”: 85% support versus 89% in February
  • “Make it easier for law enforcement agencies to add a terror suspect’s name to airline no-fly lists”: 82% support versus 87% in February
  • “Extend to seven days instead of three the length of time a terrorism suspect can be detained without charge”: 73% support versus 80% in February
  • “Give government departments the authority to share private information – such as passport applications or commercial data – with law-enforcement agencies”: 72% versus 81% in February

angus reid instituteInterestingly, a closer look at the tracking data shows that levels of strong support for these measures has eroded between eight and 10 points, indicating the overall drops in public support for these elements are accompanied by an ebbing in the intensity of that support.

(This, however, is not the case for overall support of C-51. In that instance, the 10-point decline is drawn from respondents who previously expressed moderate support for the bill. Strong support stands firm at 24%.)

Canadian public opinion expressing concern about domestic terrorism is well-documented in previous surveys from the Angus Reid Institute. This concern continues to be underlined in the findings of this most recent survey. Most Canadians who are themselves, on balance, opposed to C-51 still support two of the anti-terror elements in the legislation:

  • Cracking down on the promotion of terrorism (63% of C-51 opponents support this element)
  • Blocking websites that promote it (59% of C-51 opponents support this element).

That said, C-51 opponents draw the line with the other elements of the legislation, including: easing no-fly additions (57% against), extending suspect hold time to seven days (72% against) and information sharing with law enforcement agencies (71% against).

angus reid instituteOpponents more engaged:

Support for C-51 is stronger among Canadians who are less engaged with the issue.

In general, Canadians are more aware of the new anti-terror legislation, and the corresponding issues surrounding it, than they were at the beginning of the year.

More than half (55%) could accurately be described as well-engaged on this issue: one-in-four (24%) say they have read or seen stories about the issue and discussed it with friends and family; one-in-three (31%) say they have seen a story or two and have had the odd conversation about it.

Compare this to the 43 per cent who said they were engaged (measured against the same metrics) three months ago.

Among the 45 per cent who are today reporting they’re less engaged on this issue – either only scanning headlines, or not following it at all, support for C-51 is in the 85 per cent range.

By contrast, a slim majority of Canadians following the issue most closely today oppose C-51 (55% versus 45% support).

angus reid institute

Oversight versus Rights

Canadians remain concerned about the issue of police oversight – one of the central items in the debate surrounding the legislation. Seven-in-ten (71%) surveyed express an as-yet unmet desire to see additional supervision of law enforcement to ensure they don’t go overboard with their new powers. Conversely, one-in-three (29%) are satisfied with the level of police oversight that exists today. On this key issue, there has been no change in public opinion since the February poll.

Importantly, however, the survey data show there has been significant change over the past few months in the public’s overall assessment of the legislation’s balance between security and freedom/privacy concerns.

The latest survey shows a slim majority (51%) of Canadians continue to believe the legislation does indeed strike the right balance, but fully 36 per cent now say it “goes way too far”. This represents a near-doubling in the last three months of Canadians expressing this concern: it was 19 per cent in February.

By contrast – the number of Canadians who say Bill C-51 “doesn’t go far enough” has plummeted: it was 36 per cent in February, and now sits at 13 per cent today.

angus reid institute

The view that the legislation “goes too far” is strongest among some population segments noted earlier for their more tepid overall support of the legislation — notably B.C. residents, younger Canadians and those with a university education.

And one’s assessment on this count strongly correlates to overall views of the legislation: supporters of C-51 are comfortable that it has struck the right balance (69% take this view), while those opposed to C-51 are highly likely to be concerned that it “goes too far” (90%).

Trust in Police to Interpret C-51 Appropriately?

One of the criticisms of the legislation (and indeed, of polling that directly quotes parts of the legislation) is the bill’s wording – specifically pertaining to “making it illegal to promote terrorism”.

As we have noted, that particular angus reid instituteelement of the draft law has high public support. But critics have fairly asked, what constitutes “promoting terrorism” and who defines it?  The Angus Reid Institute asked respondents if they had confidence in law enforcement agencies to interpret this appropriately once the new legislation comes into effect. Well over half (58%) of those polled said they have confidence (although it should be noted, only 13% are “very confident”). In turn, 42 per cent say they are “not that confident” or “not at all confident” on this count.

Unsurprisingly, confidence is much higher among those who support the legislation. Still, a significant number of supporters (22%) do express unease over how this key element will actually be interpreted by law enforcement with C-51 in place.

Political implications:

Described by media accounts as a “political juggernaut”, Bill C-51 and the domestic terrorism file have granted the Conservative Party of Canada and its leader Stephen Harper a politically advantageous wedge. In terms of support for the legislation overall, the CPC’s 2011 voting base is most enthusiastic about the anti-terror legislation, with nine-in-ten (89%) supporting it.

That said, it is important to note that opposition party supporters also give C-51 an overall endorsement: three-in-five (60%) 2011 Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) voters and about as many (58%) 2011 New Democratic Party (NDP) voters.

To what extent is the public safety and domestic terror file looming in the minds of respondents ahead of a fall election? Those surveyed were asked to describe how much of a voting factor the issue will likely be for them using a 10-point scale where one represented “not a factor at all” and 10 represented “it’s the deciding factor”.

Overall, one-in-five (21%) surveyed chose an 8, 9 or 10 on this scale, while the same number (21%) said the issue would be, at best, a minor one as they decide how to vote. The rest – indeed, the majority – (58%) chose somewhere in the middle range (4-7 on the scale).

Regardless of how much weight the issue carries for them personally, Canadians still give Harper the edge regarding best leadership on the issue. Asked which major federal party leader was best to deal with the domestic terrorism file if it were to become the defining issue of a federal election campaign:

  • 44% chose CPC leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper
  • 28% chose NDP and Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair
  • 28% chose LPC leader Justin Trudeau

Notably, Harper has retained the most in-party support on this metric – four-in-five (83%) past CPC voters select him as best on the issue. This compares with just over half (55%) of past Liberal voters who give the edge to Trudeau, and fewer than half (48%) of past NDP voters who say Mulcair is best on the issue. It is also of note that roughly one-fifth of both past Liberal and NDP voters say Harper is best on the domestic terror issue (see detailed tables at the end of this release).

Click here for full report including tables and methodology

Click here for Questionnaire used in this survey

Click here for our C-51 Infographic

Image Credit: Jeremy Board


Sign up for the Angus Reid Institute Mailing List

Receive our latest releases first