Campaign notes: Balanced budget brouhaha helps Harper

The federal election campaign took a turn for the worse last week. The focus shifted from the Duffy trail – a daily reminder of the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the Harper government – to a debate about balancing the federal budget in the short term. That trivial tiff mainly pitted Trudeau against Mulcair with the media’s appetite whetted by the man-bites-dog discovery that Mulcair, of the stereotypical big-spending party, is dead keen for balancing the books.

The media’s focus on NDP-Liberal sparring was great news for Harper, a development astutely captured by Michael deAdder in his Thursday Cabinet Shuffle cartoon in the Chronicle-Herald. The Harper/Darth Vader character, informed that the two parties are “fighting it out on the left,” announces that with the “Jabba the Duff” trial out of the way and his opponents duking it out again, “until things change, I’ll be having a nap.”

News editors are rarely as insightful as media cartoonists. The media herd was stampeded towards “the economy” as the post-Duffy issue of the week by a sharp drop in the stock market on Monday and Tuesday. The fact that the market rebounded later in the week, leaving this Friday’s closing index 3% higher than a week earlier, was neither here nor there. The economy was the issue, and just like that the campaign shifted to terrain that favors the Conservatives.

The stock market bounce-back notwithstanding, the near-constant media focus on the decline in the Canadian dollar, the price of oil and China’s economic problems may create fear and economic uncertainty that the Conservatives will exploit in order to dampen voters’ enthusiasm for change. Although there are many Canadians who are unemployed or underemployed and beset with stagnant incomes and rising debt, Harper’s stay-the-course message may resonate best with those whose present circumstances are pretty good, and who want to keep them that way.

The fact that there are many Canadians in that enviable position was highlighted with the August 25 release by Environics Analytics of its eighth annual Wealthscapes report. It proclaimed 2014 as “a good year for Canadian balance sheets,” with household net worth (liquid assets, employer pension plans and real estate minus debt) increasing by 6.1%. According to EA (which uses a variety of data sources including StatsCanada, and the Bank of Canada), net worth grew fastest in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, where most voters live. And the gap between rich and poor narrowed, as wealth of the bottom fifth of the populace grew by 9.3% over the previous year, compared with 5.6% for the top fifth. According to Environics, “despite recent economic concerns related to the oil market, the new data suggest that households have improved their balance sheets and may be in a stronger position to weather economic downturns.”

In the context of the election campaign, the question is whether Canadians who are doing okay will operate from their “stronger position” to turf the Conservatives or give in to the fear-mongering about the future and cling to the devil they know. The question becomes more salient as the economic “devils” they don’t know – the opposition parties – snipe at one another about balancing the budget. A balanced budget is hardly an economic necessity – we haven’t had one since 2008 while the federal debt-to-GDP ratio continues to decline. However, the political heat around the issue grew with Trudeau’s announcement that a Liberal government would run three more years of deficits to pay for an enhanced national infrastructure program. That promise, following several statements by Mulcair that the NDP would balance the books, led the media to declare that Trudeau was moving the party to the left of the NDP.

Nova Scotians, who witnessed that run-to-the-left-of-the-NDP ploy by Liberals in the 2013 provincial campaign, should be skeptical, given the McNeil government’s 180-degree turn. And Trudeau’s decision to enlist Paul Martin to help him out on the fiscal file may evoke similar incredulousness among Canadians with long memories. Martin, they will recall, was the main author of the Liberals’ famous Red Book, that very progressive 1993 campaign platform. As Finance Minister, Martin executed a dizzying U-turn, tossing the Red Book in the trash and imposing the kind of cuts to health, education and unemployment insurance that Harper could only dream about.

Nevertheless, with monthly reports on economic growth and employment due out this week, the media will continue to focus on the different approaches to balancing the budget of the two opposition parties and the Harper government’s record may keep getting a pass. On the bright side, some polls are showing the Conservatives sitting in third place and Harperman, the celebrated anti-Harper ditty by Environment Canada researcher Tony Turner, is going viral. https://secure.avaaz.org/en/harperman_33/?bukFoib&v=64154

Maybe, despite the squabbling opposition parties, Canadians have already decided that, in the words of Tony Turner and his backup singers,  “Harperman it’s time for you to go.”

-30-

About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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