Every summer, Research Co. and Glacier Media ask Canadians to assess the best and worst prime ministers since 1968. This year’s results outline stability for some historical figures, and disquieting findings for the one individual seeking to retain the country’s top political job.
One in five Canadians (20 per cent) select Pierre Trudeau as the best federal head of government of the past 55 years, up one point since our 2022 survey. Stephen Harper is second with 17 per cent (unchanged). There is a tie for third place, featuring Justin Trudeau (11 per cent, down one point) and Jean Chrétien (also 11 per cent, up two points). Brian Mulroney remains unable to reach double digits (eight per cent, unchanged).
Pierre Trudeau gets a significantly high rating from Canadians aged 55 and over (29 per cent). Regionally, his numbers are highest in B.C. (27 per cent), Ontario (23 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (22 per cent).
This year, Quebec features a statistical tie when choosing the best recent prime minister, with Pierre Trudeau at 17 per cent and Mulroney at 16 per cent. Chrétien, whose numbers are growing across the country, stands at 10 per cent in Quebec, just below Harper and Justin Trudeau (each at 11 per cent). In Alberta, more than a third of residents (36 per cent) pick Harper as the best recent prime minister, with Pierre Trudeau a distant second at 13 per cent.
The performance of Chrétien merits additional analysis. He was at seven per cent in 2021, jumped to nine per cent in 2022 and now sits at 11 per cent in 2023. Chrétien’s base includes 16 per cent of Canadians aged 35-54, who are well acquainted with the economy he inherited and the one he left to his successor, Paul Martin.
The fluctuations are more subdued when Canadians are asked about the worst prime minister the country has had since 1968. Justin Trudeau is the choice of 30 per cent of Canadians (up one point), followed by Harper (18 per cent, up one point), Kim Campbell (seven per cent, up one point), Mulroney (six per cent, up one point) and Pierre Trudeau (five per cent, down one point).
More than a third of residents of B.C. (36 per cent), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (also 36 per cent) and Alberta (45 per cent) think Justin Trudeau is the worst recent prime minister. Animosity towards Harper only comes close to this level in Atlantic Canada (32 per cent) – a region where his Conservative Party failed to win a single seat in the 2015 federal election.
Our question on the best head of government we could have had continues to show a clear winner. Almost half of Canadians (48 per cent) think former NDP leader Jack Layton would have made a “very good” or “good” prime minister, down four points since 2022 but still far superior to the rating of all other recent former leaders of the opposition.
A second tier of contenders enjoys the favourability of more than one in five Canadians. This group includes Preston Manning (28 per cent, down one point), Robert Stanfield (27 per cent, down three points), Tom Mulcair (also 27 per cent, down two points), Andrew Scheer (22 per cent, down one point) and Erin O’Toole (also 22 per cent, down one point).
As expected, these former opposition leaders do better in their home regions, but not uniformly. Manning stands at 31 per cent in Alberta, while Mulcair checks in at 34 per cent in Quebec. Stanfield, almost half a century removed from the last federal election he fought as a Progressive Conservative leader, reaches 41 per cent in Atlantic Canada.
Four former leaders are regarded as “PM Material” by fewer than one-in-five Canadians: Michael Ignatieff (19 per cent, up one point), Stockwell Day (also 19 per cent, down one point), Rona Ambrose (18 per cent, down four points) and Stéphane Dion (also 18 per cent, unchanged).
Even if this survey does not include a voting intention question, there are evident warning signs for the governing party across generational lines. Canadians aged 35-54 split their support primarily between Harper, Pierre Trudeau and Chrétien, with Justin Trudeau in a distant fourth place. The accomplishments of the current government have failed to better position the current prime minister alongside his predecessors.
More troubling for the Liberals is what we find among Canadians aged 18-34. When we asked this question in 2020, the country’s youngest adults gave Justin Trudeau a significant lead over Harper as the best recent head of government (26 per cent to 12 per cent). This year, the two are tied with 18 per cent. This is not the kind of momentum that would precipitate an early election.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted on July 4 and July 5, 2023, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error—which measures sample variability—is +/- 3.1 percentage points, nineteen times out of twenty.