Where did the economy go? Opposition politicians in the NDP and Liberal Party came into 2015 thinking that, with an oil-price collapse and sudden fears of layoffs, they had a golden opportunity to beat up Prime Minister Stephen Harper's reputation as an economic manager. They have not made a dent.
Instead, the national political conversation has been dominated by terrorism, the military mission against the Islamic State, and lately, the niqab.
For Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, this was not the plan. Mr. Harper's Conservatives have used incumbency and shrewd tactics to turn the talk to their issues – the ones about tough leadership. Even when the economy returns to the top of the political agenda, the opposition may regret they did not make the issue count now.
It is not that the economy is a bad issue for Mr. Harper. In fact, opinion polls regularly show that voters tend to rate him best at managing the economy. That is a real asset in an election campaign. People credit Mr. Harper when they feel good about their personal finances, said pollster Nik Nanos, and also tend to turn to him when the economy is uncertain.
But opposition parties thought they saw a chance to weaken that asset.
Why? The collapse in oil prices could have undercut a prime minister who touted Canada as an energy superpower. Both the NDP and the Liberals raised the notion Mr. Harper had counted too much on oil. When the government delayed the budget, the opposition portrayed it as indecision.
And the economy is not strong. The job market is turning soft, with the unemployment rate rising slightly in February. Layoffs – not just in the oil patch, but at banks and retail firms – might increase anxiety about jobs. The International Monetary Fund cut growth projections for Canada to 2.3 per cent this year – while the U.S. economy is rolling.
But the political conversation has turned to other issues. Attacks in Canada and abroad put terrorism in the news. The Conservatives have kept it there, with far-reaching anti-terrorism legislation; Bill C-51, talking up the military mission against Islamic State; and ministers raising terrorism in speeches. Now there is Mr. Harper's opposition to allowing Muslim women to wear face-covering niqabs when they take the oath of citizenship.
These were not the topics the opposition planned on talking about. But they felt they had to respond. Mr. Harper "has a bigger megaphone," one New Democrat said.
Nathan Cullen, the NDP's finance critic, noted that the NDP has kept talking about the economy. Both Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau have stressed economic issues as they tour the country, where local newspapers do give them coverage.
Of course, the economy has not gone away. It is still the issue for Canadians, even if it does not top the political news.
But they have not made it the big, national conversation, so they have not put Mr. Harper on the hot seat. He still talks about the economy in controlled conversations, such as the one he did onstage at a convention of Saskatchewan municipalities last week, in the role of sage economic manager. The opposition leaders have not been able to scratch his reputation.
Part of it is surely that opposition parties do not have big, bold policy proposals to highlight what they would do differently.
And it is also hard to sell opposition proposals before an election campaign. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau have taken different approaches: The NDP has revealed platform positions such as a tax cut for small businesses, and repeated them all over Canada, while the Liberals are waiting until they can back up their policy announcements with ad campaigns.
The economy, they note, will be back as a national issue. Mr. Cullen said the Conservatives will have to present their delayed budget this spring – and he's betting it will focus on austerity and be out of step with Canadians who want measures to boost growth. The Liberals argue the expensive tax break for single-income couples with children that the Conservatives announced last fall just as oil prices collapsed will still seem like a mistake when the election comes.
Perhaps. But even then, both opposition leaders will be facing a prime minister who has risen in the polls, and kept his economic reputation intact. When the economy returns to the top of the news, they will still have to dent it.