OTTAWA - A new poll indicates which way the wind was blowing for that short-lived Conservative trial balloon on arena funding.
The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey found that respondents overwhelmingly rejected the idea of using federal gas-tax revenues to help build pro sports facilities.
More than two thirds—69 per cent—of the more than 1,000 respondents said gas taxes shouldn't be used for rinks, while barely a quarter said it was a good plan.
The naysayers actually climbed to 72 per cent among self-identified Conservatives.
Even in Quebec—the national high-water mark for support for the gas-tax notion—only 32 per cent of respondents said they liked the idea.
"Clearly this suggests the basic logic of keeping the gas-tax revenue earmarked for what it was originally intended"—roads, sewers, bridges and the like, said pollster Doug Anderson of Harris-Decima.
The minority Conservative government has been wrestling openly with the arena funding conundrum since last September, when a group of Quebec Tory MPs—sporting old Quebec Nordiques jerseys—posed for a photo endorsing a proposed $400-million pro rink in Quebec City. The MPs predominantly came from the Quebec City region, where a publicly funded venue is politically popular.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has never killed the notion of federal funding for pro sports venues outright. Instead, he's allowed the debate to be played out in public by various factions in his caucus.
Rick Dykstra, a popular Conservative parliamentary secretary from southern Ontario, floated the gas-tax proposal last week—seemingly with sanction from above. The Harper government's usually lock-tight weekly caucus meeting became the subject of widespread reporting, where Dykstra's proposal was said to have been well received.
"It's just an idea I put forward that I thought might be helpful and see where it goes," Dykstra said Feb. 9.
Sources told The Canadian Press the proposal was on the desk of Harper, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Wayne Wouters, the powerful clerk of the Privy Council. They alone would make the decision.
Within 48 hours, the gas tax proposal was shot down by Transport and Infrastructure Minister Chuck Strahl.
The Harris-Decima poll gives a pretty good indication why and the headline numbers are only part of the story.
When asked about spending priorities in their own community, fully 90 per cent of all survey respondents said gas-tax money should be used only for municipal infrastructure, such as roads, sewers and water-treatment plants.
Just six per cent agreed their local governments should be allowed to use the money for "large entertainment centres, such as pro sports stadiums."
Anderson calls the local responses "counter-intuitive" when it comes to surveys on government spending.
Normally, he said, "the closer you get to it being something you or your community can benefit from, you usually see support go up."
Not in this case.
"They're saying, 'No, no, no, no. Our community doesn't necessarily need another entertainment venue if we're getting infrastructure money,'" said Anderson. "Repair bridges or roads or what have you."
The results were strikingly uniform across regions, age groups and income brackets. And self-identified Conservative voters again were among the most hard core, with 91 per cent against gas-tax funding for arenas in their municipality and just six per cent in favour.
The poll was conducted Feb. 10-13 and is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.