What's your answer to recession? Suddenly that question is driving the conversation in this election campaign, and the odd thing is that the putative front-runners, the NDP, don't have a very big part in the discussion.
It's going to get louder this week. On Tuesday, Statistics Canada will release GDP numbers that will tell us whether Canada has been in a recession, according to the "technical" definition. Either way, economists will keep debating whether it's a real recession.
But this is politics, and the population already has its own opinion: A Nanos Research poll released last week found 79 per cent of Canadians think the country is in a recession.
It's not surprising then, that voters want to know what, if anything, their campaigning politicians plan to do about it.
The New Democrats are having a hard time finding a place in that discussion. The NDP has a clear policy on balancing Ottawa's books – and it's now having it attacked from both sides. The Liberals insisted it means the NDP will focus on "austerity." And on Sunday, Conservative Jason Kenney claimed there's an $8-billion gap in the NDP (not-yet-released) platform, which he said means the party would raise taxes.
The NDP is caught up in book-balancing rhetoric. But it doesn't have an emphatic answer about what it would do – immediately – about a slow economy.
The Liberals now have their answer: They'd double infrastructure spending right away, running three more deficits, to energize the economy. You can judge it smart or reckless, and point to its flaws. But it's clear, and it directly addresses a question many voters are asking.
Stephen Harper, the Conservative Leader, also has a pretty clear answer: Stick to the plan. He insists the country is not in recession, and that there will be modest economic growth this year. He says he'll keep taxes low and balance the books.
What's more, Mr. Harper led the critique of Mr. Trudeau's proposal, ridiculing his "tiny" deficit, and warning Mr. Trudeau's three years of red ink will slip-slide into permanent deficit and pile up debt. It's a Trudeau-Harper campaign conversation. Mr. Mulcair, however, has had a hard time finding his place in it.
He has been talking about Ottawa's books, and justifying his pledge to balance budgets. He's been countering Liberal accusations that he'd engage in "austerity" measures, and now Conservative accusations that his figures won't add up.
But none of that clearly addresses that voter question about recession.
The NDP does propose economic measures like reducing small-business taxes and increases in infrastructure spending. But because they pledge balanced budgets – to reassure voters they are moderate – those measures are more modest, and delayed to later years, so they will have a relatively small short-term impact.
Even the social programs that the NDP argues will aid the economy, like child care, will be phased in slowly. They'd increase infrastructure spending, but by far less than the Liberals.
It's not unreasonable for New Democrats to argue they're balancing economy-boosting measures with fiscal probity. But politically, they are squeezed between two clearer alternatives.
They can, of course, point out that those clear alternatives aren't quite so clear when you scratch the surface.
The Liberal infrastructure plans appear to include things that aren't really infrastructure, like financing social-housing subsidies. (The New Democrats note they've promised to spend $940-million on social housing in their first year in office, so if that's counted, the NDP's "infrastructure" spending increase would be $1.7-billion in 2016. Even so, it's a third of the Liberals' planned increase.)
The Liberals would also have an execution problem: It's hard to immediately launch an extra $5-billion worth of infrastructure projects.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, don't have an uncontested grip on the fiscal restraint brand. They've run seven deficits, and some economists believe their current budget has been knocked into the red.
(Mr. Harper's party would spend on infrastructure too, just not as much as his opponents now propose, and the Conservatives also offer promises they sell as economy boosters, but most are either modest or delayed, like the return of home-renovation tax credits in 2017.)
But as much as the NDP can take aim at the flaws of their opponents' plans, they still need a crisp answer of their own on the question of economic slowdown. That's becoming the talk of the campaign, and if they want to stay on top, the NDP needs to take a bigger role in that conversation.