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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper enter the House of Commons to table the budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 21, 2013. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper enter the House of Commons to table the budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 21, 2013. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Bruce Anderson: ‘Do no harm’ policies will be popular only as long as the economy stinks Add to ...

This week, while thinking about the federal budget, I found myself following the grim news from Cyprus, and then watching one of the seemingly dozens of documentaries on Netflix about Wall Street’s meltdown. What’s the connection?

Having studied polls around federal budgets for more than 25 years, the last several years have revealed a truly unique context. I’m not referring to the debate about whether the country has shifted right or left. (For what it’s worth, over the longer haul, I believe Canadians have maintained a strong attachment to progressive values on social matters, even as they became more attracted to some “small c” economic priorities such balanced budgets, leaner governments and freer trade.)

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But these contextual shifts within Canada matter less than what’s been going on in the world around us. Even though Canadians don’t voice it directly, the evidence is very clear: for the Harper government, the darker the clouds over the world economy the brighter the silver lining in domestic politics.

Canadians are hardly ecstatic about the health of our economy. But even in an era of broad disengagement, most people are well aware that things are worse in most other places.

When they look around the planet, here’s what they see:

  • Countries where economies are doing fairly well tend also to be places with a lower standard of living for the average citizen.
  • Europeans used to seem like they had it so good, but today we hear nothing but stories of fragile banks, indebted governments, brutal unemployment, service cutbacks and growing political tensions.
  • Looking south is even more disturbing. Many homeowners are underwater with their mortgages. Washington has been almost frantically borrowing from America’s children and the children they will have. The U.S. debt clock says every American owes $53,000. In Canada, we each owe $17,000, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
  • Youth unemployment is a severe, arguably urgent problem. Canadians of all ages are troubled by the human toll. Unemployment among young Canadians was 11 per cent before the crash and sits at 14 per cent now. In the UK, the rate is over 20 per cent.

What does this mean to the political calculus of a government planning a budget?

Simply, it takes “low expectations” to a new, sub-basement level. For sure, some voters will be angry, disappointed, left wanting more. But a broad swath of voters in the middle have come to a place where “do no harm” more closely resembles their attitude than “where’s the beef.”

It also means there’s not much oxygen for opposition critics to work with. If voters aren’t a little riled to begin with, it’s not easy to get them to irate.

These conditions will not exist forever. But they’ve been lingering for years, and there remain plenty of unresolved issues, especially in Europe.

At some point, voters will get restless with “batten the hatches” budgets. They will tire of hearing about how carefully we need to tread, how uncertain things look. Regardless of the merits of austerity or stimulus, passive or active economic policy, more will yearn for compelling, aspirational platforms.

Even as the Conservatives wrap their budgets in “jobs, growth and prosperity” branding, they know well that their economic philosophy is coming off as “keep calm, avoid risk, live frugally.” No doubt the Harper government will try to evolve their positioning as circumstances permit and political winds dictate. By 2015, the world economic context may well have shifted, but for the time being, the “small ball” approach, if not exciting, is likely to avoid too much political trouble.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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