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politics insider

Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research.

Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research. Follow him on Twitter at @niknanos

The distance from political phenomenon to fighting for survival can sometimes be surprisingly short. It was Pierre Elliott Trudeau who swept the nation in his first election and then fought for his political survival in his second election. The challenge in his first mandate was to navigate a topsy-turvy Canadian economy with rampant inflation and hammered by the rising price of oil. Uncertain economic times can be a roller-coaster ride of hope and anxiety for voters. Hope that things can be better and anxiety about job security. This also makes for political turbulence for governments.

The latest Bloomberg Nanos tracking on the economy suggests that the sentiment on the economy has swung from the hopefulness coinciding with the Liberal majority victory to increasing pessimism on the future strength of the Canadian economy. Over the past year the most striking collapse of positive views on the economy has occurred in the Prairie provinces. The once hotbed of economic exuberance fuelled by a robust energy sector now is a laggard, hitting lows of negative opinion, worse than the darkest time of the stock-market collapse in 2008.

The current dynamic of public opinion on the economy is very important for a number of reasons.

First, although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still tracks well in public opinion, the underlying negative sentiment could be a trigger point for a new round of Western alienation and anger. The assertion by the previous Harper Conservative government that Canada is an energy superpower currently rings a bit hollow with the price of oil at very low levels. To compound this, the shift of the federal Liberal government to a more environmentally focused agenda further undermines the old energy prosperity narrative. Squeezed in the pocketbook, the political environment in flux, the Prairies potentially are at risk of being politically inflamed against the "central government" in Ottawa.

Second, the low Canadian dollar, held out as a potential boost for Canada's manufacturing and export sectors, has yet to see a positive impact on the economy. For many average Canadians, a low Canadian dollar is symptomatic of a weakening economy. A look at the sliding economic sentiment in Ontario should also give one pause. Coupled with declines in the West, it is a one-two punch on the Canadian economy. Although it's important for the Prime Minister to send positive signals to ensure that anxiety does not convert into an economic spiral, the government needs to ensure that it conveys to Canadians that there is a real prosperity narrative that helps Canadians understand what types of jobs will be created in the future. The "sunny ways" of the Liberals could quickly become a hollow message symbolic of a lack of connection to our true state of affairs. In that sense the Liberals have to tread carefully.

The twist in this story is that where one Trudeau prime minister faced rising inflation and rising oil prices, the second Trudeau prime minister faces little inflation and plummeting oil prices. Regardless, these economic shifts represent a risk if a clear prosperity strategy is not advanced by the Liberal government. In that respect, Pierre Trudeau's first mandate is a lesson for not only the current Trudeau government but for the opposition parties.

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