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Why it makes sense for Liberals to attack Jim Flaherty Add to ...

A little while ago I wrote that opposition parties wouldn’t find many more votes by promising better management of the economy, since many people had come to the conclusion that Canada has come through this rough patch pretty well, all things considered. A new poll this week revealed a massive increase in optimism about the economy compared to the levels seen last year.

But even if there may be limited upside in touting their economic credentials, the Liberals can’t afford to walk away from the question of “which party can best manage the economy.” That’s why finance critic Scott Brison’s effort to precondition Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s speech in Washington next week is a good idea. Mr. Brison made a number of points that, from the Liberal Party’s standpoint, are in danger of fading from memory if no one is bringing them up. Repeated often and crisply enough (skills Brison has mastered) they can help neutralize the Conservatives advantage on this .

These are the points (assuming they are accurate) Brison made that could prove most potent if they start to form a bigger part of our collective memory:

» The Conservatives ramped up government spending by 18 per cent in their first three budgets, and had put the country into deficit before the recession began.

» Mr. Flaherty has missed every deficit target he has set, incorrectly said that Canada would suffer no recession, and promised the country would not go into deficit, all this on the way to a deficit is the largest on record.

» “Squeezed by the cost of education, retirement savings and caring for sick loved ones, Canadians now have $1.50 of personal debt for every dollar of income – highest in history and higher than Americans face.”

Polling data suggests the Liberals can’t win an election by making the economy the ballot question. Despite the times we’ve been through, anger is relatively low and probably can’t be stoked much, especially if the economy continues to improve. A Liberal victory would need other foundations too.

That said, the Liberals could lose an election if the Conservative economic narrative prevails without challenge. Voters are not exuberant about Tory economic and fiscal management: opinions cluster somewhere between moderately satisfied and underwhelmed. The underwhelmed may simply default to the Conservatives if allowed to forget that the Liberals presided over a strong expansion of the economy and an historic reduction in national debt.

During the Chrétien era, it took several successive years of Martin budget surpluses, before the majority of Canadians believed that the spiral of deficits and debt was really, truly broken. For the Liberals, it will be a challenge to remind people about the past without appearing more fascinated with their party’s history than the country’s future, but it is work worth doing.

A tougher strategic choice for the Liberals is whether to hammer away at convincing more voters that economic conditions are worse than they feel, or instead focus on what a more activist Liberal government would do to help Canadians capitalize on expanding economic opportunities. Conventional wisdom says opposition parties succeed by stoking anger, but today’s political market is more than a little unconventional.

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