The Globe and Mail is hosting a debate on the economy among the leaders of the three main political parties on Thursday at 8 pm (ET). Click here for more details.
This is Act Two of the Conservative campaign, and Stephen Harper's team is back to the core message, now with an alarm-bell tone. "Protect Our Economy," say the new campaign signs now being waved behind the Tory Leader.
After six weeks of being knocked out of his comfort zone by Mike Duffy's trial, the Syrian refugee crisis and infighting over a faltering campaign, the Conservative reboot is refocusing Mr. Harper on economic fundamentalism: low taxes, balanced budgets and dire warnings that the other parties will drive the economy into the abyss.
It's a two-part manoeuvre. The Conservatives are trying to turn the page on the Syrian refugee crisis controversy by announcing additional measures – on Saturday, they said Ottawa would match $100-million in private relief donations – and are now amping up rhetoric on the economy to try to move the narrative back to what they consider their terms.
One catch is that it's no longer clear the economy is an issue on which Mr. Harper has an edge with voters. But he's definitely hoping to turn the campaign back to that channel. And this may be the right week.
On Monday, the government will release figures for the 2014-15 fiscal year that ended in March. And there might be a surprise: Some economists believe that instead of the tiny, $2-billion deficit the government projected in April, final figures will show a tiny surplus. That matters little to the economy, but a lot to Mr. Harper's bragging rights.
On Thursday, all three major party leaders stop in Calgary for a debate on the economy hosted by The Globe and Mail. The leaders will jockey for an edge before that head-on clash on the issue voters rank at the top of their concerns.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, for example, will move before the debate to unveil his fiscal plan – the costing of the party's promises and revenue measures to pay for them. That's intended to blunt a key attack against the NDP: that New Democrats can't fulfill spending promises such as subsidized child care, increased transit spending and expanded seniors health care, all while balancing the budget.
To pull it off, the NDP platform is to be phased in over years: The child-care plan, for example, would not be fully in effect for eight years. And the party will also propose a corporate-tax hike to be detailed this week.
For Mr. Harper, that topic is better than what he's faced. The barrage of questions on Canada's slow response to Syrian refugees pushed his party lower in the polls when voters judged him short of compassion. His support has rebounded since, according to Nanos Research, and the Tories are back in the midst of a three-way statistical tie. But it's still a defensive issue for Mr. Harper: His core supporters don't demand action to help refugees, but some soft Tories and swing voters do.
Instead, this week, he gets to talk about his issue, the economy, and on his turf, in Calgary. But his economic brand isn't what it used to be. Slow growth and technical recession have taken a toll. A Nanos poll three weeks ago found 28 per cent believed Mr. Harper's re-election would be good for the economy – less than Mr. Mulcair or Mr. Trudeau. Those are his supporters. But he needs swing voters, too.
On Sunday, Mr. Harper's speech in Stittsville, Ont., was about the economy and nothing else – low taxes, balanced budgets and warnings that other parties will cost you money, and maybe your job. The NDP, he said, will build up debt. But Mr. Mulcair says he will balance budgets and won't increase personal taxes. On Sunday, Mr. Harper said his party would cut the small-business tax rate to 9 per cent from 11 per cent. The NDP made that promise months ago.
Mr. Trudeau has challenged Mr. Harper in another way, arguing growth is the immediate issue, not balancing the books. By stating he'd run deficits for three years, the Liberal Leader has been able to promise expanded infrastructure spending, and while he'd raise taxes on high-income earners, he promises a tax cut for most.
Mr. Harper's message is that the choice is "stark" – but on some economic points, at least, the other parties have crowded his turf. Still, it's the turf he wants to fight on, after weeks of unpleasant terrain.