Trudeau and Mulcair debated the economy on Harper’s terms—and lost

The NDP and Liberal leaders tried, but failed, to land serious blows on the PM’s economic record

 
Left to right: Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper at the Maclean’s national leaders’ debate on August 6, 2015.
Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper at the Maclean’s national leaders’ debate on August 6, 2015. (Frank Gunn/CP)

There is nothing more refreshing in politics than a leader who has nothing to lose.

A victory for Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in the October election would be any opportunity to hold caucus meetings around something bigger than a coffee table. The low threshold for success means she is free to play offense—as she did Thursday in the Maclean’s leaders debate. Unencumbered by expectations, May was the most comfortable of the four performers. Most of the intelligent things that were said about the economy came out of her mouth.

To his credit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did well, given he was the target of nearly every attack. Harper is an ideologically arrogant leader entirely convinced of his right to foist his worldview on the country, even though 60% of voters in the last election cast ballots for someone other than a Conservative. But arrogance was an advantage in Thursday night’s setting. Harper was rarely flustered. He effectively shrugged off the Bank of Canada’s prediction that gross domestic product contracted in the first half of the year. Growth will be positive on the year, he said. Message: stick with me and everything will be fine.

The opposition leaders were good at pointing out that Harper has been rather poor macro-economic forecaster. His vision of Canada as an energy “superpower” wrongly assumed oil prices had shifted forever higher. And when the foundations of the global economy were trembling ahead of the financial crisis, Harper denied that a recession was coming. In fact, in the autumn of 2008, when the rest of the world was scrambling to deal with the fallout of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, Harper made a priority of curbing public funding for political parties. The move triggered a political crisis that wasted weeks of precious time. The prime minister eventually presented a credible economic stimulus plan, but only after experiencing a near-death experience in Parliament.

Harper is vulnerable on the economy, which is why his campaign also is emphasizing “public safety” as another reason to give the Conservatives another mandate. Yet the two main opposition leaders did a poor job of exploiting it. New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair cleverly noted that Harper’s legacy as economic manager could include two recessions. Justin Trudeau, the Liberal leader, pointed out that his predecessors bequeathed Harper big budget surpluses that he turned into deficits.

Yet neither Mulcair or Trudeau really hurt Harper on the economy. That’s because they chose to debate the prime minister on his terms. Harper wants the debate about economic policy to revolve around balanced budgets. He says anyone who votes for a New Democratic or Liberal candidate is asking for Greek-style debt crisis. The charge is absurd, but no more so than the repeated attempts by Mulcair and Trudeau to smear Harper for running “eight-consecutive deficits.”

Any responsible leader would have run shortfalls in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Harper’s failure is his refusal to plan for a ninth or even a tenth deficit. Business investment is weak. Exports are struggling. Households are too indebted to carry on spending in their post-crisis pace. If there ever is a time for a more active role for government in the economy, this is it. The federal government easily could do more because its debt is low and borrowing costs may never be lower. But Harper won’t because he is ideologically fused to balanced budgets. The Conservatives want to equate fiscal probity with superb economic management. By trying to embarrass Harper for running deficits, Mulcair and Trudeau are playing into the prime minister’s hands. They elevate the importance of balanced budgets by trying so hard to convince voters that they too would run tight fiscal policy. The New Democratic Party and the Liberals, therefore, would do no better at boosting economic growth than the Conservative Party is right now. So why change prime ministers?

And now back to Elizabeth May. She was the only leader who recognized that if the objective is to stimulate growth in the near term, then Ottawa has to change the way it frames economic policy. When asked to rate how important it was to run a balanced budget, May said: “In the scheme of things, not very.” It was a recognition that fear of even a small deficit limits ambition. May said she would unleash an “army of carpenters” to retrofit buildings that leak warm air in the winter, and require occupants to blast their air conditioners in the summer.

This is the kind of creative thinking that Ottawa has lacked for years when it comes to economic policy. May could finance her army cheaply with record-low interest rates and promise—in legislation, if need be—to pay it back as soon as the economy was once again growing at potential. The Greens’ prospects are slim. But on Thursday night, the party’s leader was alone in showing that there was another way forward.

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