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Pollster sees risk for Harper as confidence in economy hits two-year low

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses a gathering as he opens new facilities at the Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Pessimism is on the rise as Canadians become less confident the economy will improve over the next six months, according to a new Nanos Research poll.

All of this could spell trouble for Stephen Harper's Conservative government, which must now walk a fine line in managing the economic expectations of Canadians.

"This is the lowest confidence level that we've seen in two years," pollster Nik Nanos said of his survey, which measures Canadians' perceptions of the economy and its strength.

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"[Politicians]have to be very careful from a straight economic perspective of this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy," he told The Globe. "If people think that the economy is going to actually see another downturn – that we might see a double-dip – they start saving money and stop spending money and that has an effect on the economy on the consumer side. That's the risk."

Economic turbulence in Europe and economic gridlock across the border in the United States are combining to drive pessimism among Canadians, Mr. Nanos said.

In 2009, Canadians were climbing out of the market crash and were still quite pessimistic – but not as pessimistic as in this most recent economic-mood index. It shows that only 16 per cent of those surveyed felt the economy will become stronger in the next six months compared to 29.2 per cent who felt the same way in the second quarter of this year; 38.9 per cent of respondents said they felt the economy would be weaker compared to 23.6 per cent in the second quarter.

Ontarians and Quebeckers are among the least optimistic, with 15.1 per cent of Ontarians and 11.5 per cent of Quebeckers saying felt the economy would be stronger, compared to 30 per cent and 21.1 who answered the same way in the previous survey. Nearly 41 per cent of Ontarians and 36 per cent of Quebeckers said the economy would become weaker compared to 23.6 per cent and 19 per cent who answered the same way earlier.

Not surprisingly, the most optimistic Canadians are those in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta where provincial economies are much more robust.

For example, 21.1 per cent of those surveyed in the Prairies said the economy would be stronger over the next six months compared to 38.3 per cent from the second quarter survey; 32.7 per cent said the economy would be weaker compared to 23.5 per cent from the last poll.

Although Canadians are pessimistic going forward, their perceptions of job security and their personal financial situation are stable, according to Mr. Nanos. "This hasn't hit home in terms of impact on the day to day lives of Canadians," he said. "However, psychologically Canadians are starting to hunker down for more bad news."

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The Nanos pocketbook index shows that 21.4 per cent of Canadians feel they are better off in terms of their personal finances than they were in the second quarter of this year, when 17.9 per cent answered the same way.

And about the same number – 18.7 per cent compared to 19 per cent in the second quarter survey – say they do not believe their personal debt will increase over the next six months.

Mr. Nanos said it's important for political leaders to "contextualize how Canada fits into the global situation" and to assure Canadians they are doing whatever they can not to make this situation worse.

He added that Canadians look to the situation in Europe and the United States and ask "what does this mean to me and my job?"

The survey of 1,209 Canadians was conducted between Sept. 25 and Oct. 2. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage point, 19 times out of 20.

Unite the left?

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Nathan Cullen is first out of the gate in attempting to introduce some policy into what has so far been an idea-challenged NDP leadership race.

Mr. Cullen, the four-term MP from British Columbia's Skeena–Bulkley Valley, believes he's figured out a way to bring together the NDP and Liberals to win government.

And he emphasizes it is not a merger.

"I'll be proposing an option – not a merger – that will help progressive Canadians defeat Conservatives," he told The Globe in advance of a news conference he's scheduled Tuesday afternoon.

"There's a real need to get into something substantive in the leadership race and present some good new ideas," Mr. Cullen said. "I said when I launched the bid that I would be doing politics differently and [Tuesday]I will be bringing that to life."

Two other leadership contenders – backroom strategist Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair, the party's deputy leader – have also ruled out a merger with the Liberals.

But Winnipeg MP Pat Martin has advocated for a deal between the two parties. In fact, he's said that if no candidate comes out in support of a merger, he'll run himself of a unity platform.

Perhaps Mr. Cullen's full proposal will fit the bill.

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