Con­ser­va­tives dig out their old elec­tion script

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Carol Goar Carol Goar is a na­tional af­fairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

If you have a sense of déjà vu as Canada's 42nd gen­eral elec­tion ap­proaches, there is a rea­son.

Here is what then-fi­nance min­is­ter Jim Fla­herty said in 2008 as the econ­omy started to wob­ble. "We are well po­si­tioned to weather this pe­riod of global un­cer­tainty. Canada's eco­nomic fun­da­men­tals are solid."

Here is what Fi­nance Min­is­ter Joe Oliver said last week­end as the econ­omy shrank for its fourth con­sec­u­tive month. "We're not in a re­ces­sion. We don't be­lieve we will be in a re­ces­sion."

Here is what Stephen Harper said in 2008. "This coun­try will not go into re­ces­sion next year and will lead the G7 coun­tries."

Here is what the prime min­is­ter said last week­end. "Ev­ery ex­pert in the world thinks that this coun­try is go­ing to grow as the year goes on and has some of the best prospects look­ing for­ward."

Then, as now, ex­ter­nal shock waves were buf­fet­ing Canada. In 2008, the melt­down be­gan in New York. This time, there are two sources of up­heaval: the eu­ro­zone and China.

Then, as now, Canada had deep struc­tural prob­lems. In 2008, the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. This time, Canada's overde­pen­dence on the energy sec­tor has height­ened our vul­ner­a­bil­ity to for­eign jolts.

Then, as now, the prime min­is­ter warned Cana­di­ans they risked tip­ping the coun­try into a re­ces­sion by "vot­ing for the other guys."

Then, as now, the sta­tis­tics told a mixed story. Although in­vestors were jumpy, the job mar­ket was calm, the hous­ing sec­tor was solid and the fed­eral bud­get was bal­anced.

Then, as now, most pri­vate fore­cast­ers were hedg­ing their bets.

With hind­sight, Canada was in a se­vere re­ces­sion in 2008 when the Con­ser­va­tives flashed their all-clear sig­nals. On Sept. 1, Sta­tis­tics Canada will tell us whether Canada is in a re­ces­sion now. That is when the fed­eral agency re­leases its eco­nomic growth num­bers for the first half of 2015.

There are dif­fer­ences be­tween the past and the present.

In 2008 fore­cast­ers were pro­ject­ing the long­est, deep­est eco­nomic trough since the 1930s. To­day most an­tic­i­pate a mild re­ces­sion.

Seven years ago, no Cana­dian bank con­tra­dicted the gov­ern­ment's san­guine view. This time, the Toronto-Do­min­ion Bank has bro­ken ranks.

"It is likely the econ­omy was in a re­ces­sion in the first half of the year," said Ran­dall Bartlett, the bank's se­nior economist last week. "The sec­ond half of the year is also likely to be weaker than pre­vi­ously ex­pected."

Back then Harper had lit­tle dif­fi­culty con­vinc­ing vot­ers that his ri­vals - Stéphane Dion and Jack Lay­ton - were un­fit to steer the econ­omy through tur­bu­lence.

Now, af­ter four years of slow-to-sput­ter­ing growth, Cana­di­ans have doubts about Harper's helms­man­ship and they're less will­ing to write off Thomas Mul­cair and Justin Trudeau as in­ept am­a­teurs.

To put all this in per­spec­tive, two po­lit­i­cal con­stants need to be taken into ac­count: Ev­ery fi­nance min­is­ter down­plays the threat of a re­ces­sion to avoid rat­tling the mar­kets or shak­ing public con­fi­dence. Ev­ery op­po­si­tion leader ac­cuses the gov­ern­ment of eco­nomic mis­man­age­ment to fuel the public ap­petite for change.

Look­ing at the broad sweep of Cana­dian history, there is no strong link be­tween re­ces­sions and elec­toral defeats. Harper won in 2008, de­spite the eco­nomic storm sig­nals.

Louis St. Lau­rent won in 1953 as the econ­omy con­tracted but he was routed four years later by John Diefen­baker. Joe Clark lost in 1980, but the slow­ing econ­omy was the least of his woes. No other gen­eral elec­tions were held dur­ing re­ces­sions.

Lim­ited as the pat­tern is, it sug­gests eco­nomic down­turns com­pound - rather than cause - a gov­ern­ment's mis­for­tunes.

Vot­ers know the busi­ness cy­cle will al­ways churn and events abroad will al­ways af­fect Canada. They look for a leader they trust, re­gard as com­pe­tent and con­sider most likely to act in their in­ter­ests.

They weigh the record of the gov­ern­ing party and the avail­abil­ity of cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tives.

So does it mat­ter if Canada is in a re­ces­sion? Not to vot­ers who are in­su­lated from the swings of the mar­ket­place. But they are a shrink­ing mi­nor­ity.

Most Cana­di­ans live pay­cheque to pay­cheque. They string to­gether con­tracts, tem­po­rary jobs or part-time po­si­tions.

They have no work­place ben­e­fits and no sav­ings to fall back on. Ev­ery eco­nomic tremor puts their liveli­hood at risk. That does not nec­es­sar­ily mean the Con­ser­va­tives will be top­pled in Oc­to­ber. It means Harper's pre­scrip­tion - a mix of de­nial and re­straint - will be hard to sell to the jaded elec­torate of 2015.

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