MPs come back to Parliament today to find things changed. The Canadian economy is shifting. Lower oil prices mean energy is no longer king. Economists look to Ontario, not Alberta, to drive growth. Layoffs and a slowdown, at least in the near term, are predicted.
Opposition parties believe it's a moment to scratch Stephen Harper's economic reputation.
But if the economic context has changed enough to give them a new crack at Mr. Harper, the NDP and Liberals still lack their own identity: clear sets of policies that tell Canadians what they would do that's dramatically different to get the economy rolling. And they might remain too shackled by politics, by the dangers of proposing deficits or tax hikes, to offer them.
It now seems likely that the election this year will turn in large part on the economy. Mr. Harper has a known, nine-year record. On Friday, he described it in terms of ho-hum conservative policy: keeping taxes low, promoting trade and balancing the books. He told Canadians nothing new is needed. It's a known brand.
The NDP and Liberals complain he doesn't do enough to foster growth, but haven't yet put forward the substance to show they have a very different plan to move a $1.8-trillion economy.
Still, they sense opportunity for critiques. Both parties have launched similar attacks on Mr. Harper: that the PM put all his eggs in one basket, making the Canadian economy too dependent on energy, and he recklessly prespent the surplus by announcing an income-splitting tax cut last fall.
NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen said that will help show the Conservatives' reputation as good economic managers is a myth. "It was supposed to be their strongest card," he said. "And they don't look good."
That's fair game in politics. Governments take credit and blame for the economy. Job growth has been less stellar in recent years than Tories pretend.
But the eggs-in-one-basket accusation, while it makes good political rhetoric, is not solid economic fact. Though Mr. Harper was trying to make Canada an energy superpower, he didn't actually succeed.
Remember the pipeline projects he backed, Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, stalled. The oil sands boom was caused by high oil prices, not Mr. Harper's policies. Mr. Harper also pursued free trade and cut corporate taxes.
Still, he obviously knows he's vulnerable to the rhetoric: His government is furiously announcing manufacturing subsidies.
That's just a little relabelling, though. Mr. Harper's approach to economics is known. The thing is, neither NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair nor Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have made it clear they'd change things in a big way.
Jim Stanford, an economist with Unifor, a big union traditionally in sync with the NDP, said he'd propose a 10-to-15-year program of infrastructure projects, with Ottawa putting in perhaps $30-billion. He expects the NDP wouldn't, because they'd fear proposing a deficit.
It's not just union economists who would risk a deficit. Mike Moffat, an Ivey Business School economics professor and member of Justin Trudeau's Council of Economic Advisers, notes most economists don't worry about relatively small deficits of a few billion dollars. If voters weren't an issue, he'd run a deficit to stimulate the economy, too.
But opposition parties do have to answer to voters. Mr. Cullen said the NDP will stay in the black. The Liberals say fiscal responsibility is important. And with the budget tighter than before, there's not a lot of money for big stimulus. And raising taxes is unpopular.
Both the NDP and Liberals say they would undo Conservatives' income-splitting tax breaks for single-income couples, announced in October, expected to cost the treasury $2.4-billion a year. The NDP also says it would raise corporate taxes, which would perhaps bring in a few hundred million more. But those are tiny sums in a $1.8-trillion economy, and only 1 per cent of the $295-billion in revenues Ottawa expects next year.
The NDP would use most of it, $1.9-billion, for a subsidized daycare program. While that's a social program, it might boost growth a little by encouraging work-force participation. NDP proposals to raise the federal minimum wage would affect few people. Most of the other NDP economic ideas in Mr. Cullen's recent letter offering budget input to Finance Minister Joe Oliver are either modest, such as a hiring tax credit for small business, or vague, such as a pledge to protect manufacturing jobs.
The Liberals? Mr. Trudeau has said he'll promote growth through job-training and infrastructure programs. While many economists believe infrastructure projects can boost the economy, the scale is crucial – and Mr. Trudeau hasn't made clear if he'd spend much more than Mr. Harper.
Both parties say they'll reveal more details on timelines that suit their election strategies. But as they move to scratch Mr. Harper's brand, they still don't have their product on the shelf.