Remember the Stephen Harper who went around touting Canada as an energy superpower? His government is spending much of the week announcing subsidies for manufacturers.
This is the world of $46 oil, and the Conservative government must scramble to keep up. Mr. Harper has narrow margins to work with. A little economic uncertainty, and some tightening of federal budgets, might actually work to his advantage. A deep slowdown would be dangerous.
TD Bank issued a report on Tuesday that shows one of the dangers: it predicts that the government's planned surplus will turn to deficit next year because of the lower oil prices. And a deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, Timothy Lane, told a U.S. business audience that oil prices could go lower, stay there for a while, and on the whole be "bad for Canada."
That's one reason why Mr. Harper's ministers are out this week announcing federal funds to boost manufacturing. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt was in Guelph Monday to unveil $50-millio for auto-parts maker Linamar, junior ministers Gary Goodyear and Bal Gosal will be at Mississauga's Koss aerospace in Mississauga for a Wednesday announcement, and Treasury Board President Tony Clement will do one in Parry Sound on Thursday.
Mr. Harper's government would probably make such announcements anyway just because of where they are – in Ontario. But the shifting economy is another reason. If oil prices remain low, energy won't drive economic growth, and the country will count notably on manufacturing. And if the economy slows, the Conservatives will want to show they've been promoting the engine of growth, manufacturing, rather than relying on oil.
The prime minister's year-end interviews showed a shift in emphasis. He once portrayed pipelines to the West Coast as vital national infrastructure, but now stressed it was a private project. Instead Mr. Harper, leader of a party that once railed against industrial subsidies, was talking up his government's support for manufacturing.
A little bit of economic uncertainty doesn't necessarily hurt Mr. Harper. Polls show more Canadians rate him as a good economic manager than NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Justin Trudeau. If the economy is the issue, Conservatives expect to fare well. Mr. Harper has branded himself as a safe choice for uncertain times.
A little blow to Ottawa's budget also doesn't mean disaster. If there won't be big surpluses in the next few years, the NDP and Liberals will find it harder to promise to spend, whether on daycare or infrastructure or something else. And the TD report issued yesterday predicted that even if next year's planned surplus disappears, the government might still balance the books with a $3-billion safety cushion.
Optimists, meanwhile, argue that while low oil prices will hit Alberta, Ontario and Quebec will gain because a lower dollar will help manufacturing. It might balance out.
But it's too volatile to bank on. TD Bank's predictions are based on $67-per-barrel oil; current prices would put the budget deeper in the red. With $46 oil, manufacturing probably wouldn't add jobs as quickly as the energy sheds them. There'd be ripples. Canadian banks, according to a BMO Capital Markets report issued Friday, hold $55-million in oil-industry debt, so profits could shrink – and the Big Five banks are all among the Canada's top 20 largest employers.
In other words, the oil-price effects could hit the Canadian economy hard – when in comparison, the U.S. economy is doing nicely. Mr. Harper's reputation as an economic manager might be shaken. And if people are losing their jobs, the Conservatives' chief offer to voters, modest tax cuts, might seem less important to people worrying about security, jobs, growth. If the economy is in deficit anyway, voters might not fret when other parties promise to spend, especially if they believe it is stimulus, and might lead to jobs. Canadians tend to rate Conservatives as good economic managers, but sometimes rate left-leaning parties better on jobs.
Of course, no one knows. Unpredictable oil prices make Canada's economy, and its politics, harder to forecast. But one good bet is that if oil prices remain low, we will see Mr. Harper's government spending a lot of time and taxpayers' money to argue they're helping manufacturers.