It's a recession! Stephen Harper's opponents were practically popping bottles of bubbly, because bad news came at such a good time for them. But wait, it's Mr. Harper that's smiling.
Welcome to the recession-era whirlwind of spin. The NDP and Liberals wag their fingers in disappointment at this sad failure, and say that the plan's not working. Terrible news! The Conservatives say it's a recession in name only, just a technical one, there were "challenges," but, well, it's over, anyway, and things are already bouncing back. "It's good news!" Mr. Harper said.
Game faces are mandatory in politics, but it's not good news for Mr. Harper. He has in the past benefited when the economy was uncertain, but the public already knew this economy was shaky, and long-serving prime ministers don't gain when it tips into recession. That's why Mr. Harper dodged the idea all along, denying a recession was coming, then denying we're in one, and now saying it's in the past – whatever it was.
But the recession call is not the whole ball game. Voters care about what comes next. The way leaders spin the recession, and how bad it is, is part of the message they send about what needs to be done about the economy. Mr. Harper's message was that you steer straight ahead.
Economists still debate whether this is a real recession, rather than a technical one, because some economic indicators, like jobs, seem to be unrecession-like. It's not unusual for economist consensus on recessions to remain elusive until long after the fact. But politically, the fact of recession isn't the point.
The headlines have rolled: it's a recession. A straightforward technical definition of two quarters of economic contraction has been met, and that happens to be the definition that Mr. Harper's government enshrined in law.
To the population at large, it's a belated confirmation. They already felt the country was in recession. A Nanos Research poll released last week found 79 per cent think so. Tuesday's headlines will reinforce that feeling. And comparisons only make it worse – the U.S. economy ticked along with 3.7-per-cent growth in the second quarter.
Mr. Harper's explanation that the downturn is confined to the oil sector, hit by the winds of a global price shock, didn't get backing from Statistics Canada, either. Oil was down, and mining was hit hard, but manufacturing, construction and utilities were also down. That "good news" Mr. Harper was talking about was an uptick in June, at the end of the quarter, but there's no certainty that's the start of a rebound. Household debt is high, so growing consumer spending might not last, and the commodities slump appears persistent.
That's part of the blame game. His opponents will exaggerate his impact on the economic cycle, just as Mr. Harper took excessive credit for good trends. But Mr. Harper has relied on his reputation as an economic manager, so recession doesn't help.
But there is a reason for the spin. The depth of the recession, and whether it will continue, will frame the debate about who will handle it best.
Mr. Harper is a veteran incumbent locked into the stay-the-course campaign theme – so he has to argue that this recession is a ripple, not a wave, and that the best course is to stick with the plan, and not dive into panicky risks. It's an unflappable leadership style that has worked for him before.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, uses the recession theme not just to prescribe action, but to attack Mr. Harper as callously out of touch. People were already struggling under a slow economy, he said, and now it's going backward. He's already pledged stimulus spending on infrastructure, and said he'd run deficits to boost the economy – so he claimed the GDP numbers as evidence his opponents have underestimated the need for action.
And the NDP's Thomas Mulcair is now the man in the middle – promising different economic policies from Mr. Harper, but safe ones. He has chosen to try to quiet the public's qualms about NDP economic policies by pledging balanced budgets. So for the NDP, this was a recession big enough to show Mr. Harper has mismanaged the economy, but not big enough to demand deficit-spending stimulus.