With Canada mired in an economic slowdown, new survey data suggest voters see Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair and the New Democratic Party as the best choice to improve the country's prospects.
A Globe and Mail/Nanos Research poll asked 1,000 Canadians last week how the election of each of the three main party leaders would affect the economy. And 47 per cent said a Mulcair victory would have a "positive" or "somewhat positive" impact. That was well ahead of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 31.7-per-cent positive result. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau garnered 41.4 per cent.
Respondents were also asked what election result would have "the most positive impact on the Canadian economy." While a Harper-led Conservative majority ranked highest, at 24.1 per cent, a Mulcair majority came in at 20.6 per cent, compared with 13.5 per cent for a majority Liberal government led by Mr. Trudeau.
The poll is a potential blow to Mr. Harper's self-styled reputation as the best steward of the economy, a central part of his message since coming to office in 2006. "If you're a Conservative strategist you have to look at a number like that and be a bit concerned," said Nanos Research president Nik Nanos. "The biggest takeaway is the NDP is not seen as a bogeyman in terms of their impact on the Canadian economy."
Former Conservative pollster Dave Crapper called the results "groundbreaking," suggesting voters who appear to be warming to Mr. Mulcair and the NDP are ready "to give them credit" for being able to manage the economy – a reputation that has long eluded the party.
While the economy is expected to be a key issue in the fall election, strategists across the political spectrum said it's premature to read too much into one poll. "Campaigns matter," Mr. Crapper said. "And Harper is an excellent campaigner."
Most suggested that Mr. Mulcair has benefited from the NDP victory in the Alberta election in May that ended 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule. Some also said the federal Conservatives, which have focused their efforts on hammering Mr. Trudeau, have yet to turn their firepower on Mr. Mulcair and the NDP. "Is Mulcair looking better having nobody taking a critical look at him?" one Conservative strategist said. "I'm sure that is helpful for him at the moment. I suspect that will not be the case for the next three months."
Mr. Mulcair has talked up his economic platform recently in speeches to business audiences and during visits to Ontario farms and businesses. He has pledged to increase the minimum wage, cut small business taxes, introduce new tax credits, commit an extra $1.5-billion in gas taxes to infrastructure spending, introduce a national childcare program and deliver balanced budgets. "The NDP will have to be extremely diligent in making sure their platform adds up," said Goldy Hyder, CEO of public affairs firm Hill+Knowlton Canada.
Former Harper government spokesman Jason MacDonald said: "If you dig deep we're looking at a high tax and debt-focused policy coming from the NDP." He added the election remains "an abstract notion" for many and that as it draws near "we'll probably [see] what we've seen over time: people recognize … the Conservatives are [the party] that actually has a track record and a clear plan" on economic matters.
Canada's economy has struggled in part due to weakening prices globally for oil and other commodities. The Bank of Canada initially forecast expansion for this year, but data suggest the economy contracted in the first half, putting Canada in a recession. While Canada's economy throughout the global 2008-09 recession and subsequent recovery performed better than others, it now lags the United States. Mr. Harper and Finance Minister Joe Oliver have insisted the government will balance this year's budget, despite last week's warning from the Parliamentary Budget Officer that Ottawa could post a $1-billion deficit.
"The upcoming election will be about change [versus] more of the same," said senior NDP strategist Brad Lavigne. "Do Canadians want to [stick] with Harper's failed [economic] plan, or go with a new one? All indicators suggest Stephen Harper's economic plan is not working."
The margin of error on the Nanos poll is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.