If the question on election day is "the economy?" the winners will be the Conservatives. I know there are Liberal advisers who maintain that the middle class is feeling squeezed and fearful about the future, but the evidence keeps piling up that the Liberals will not be able to make a meal of that.
Our latest Harris Decima polling results for The Canadian Press reveal a number of things about the way voters are feeling about the economy and the Conservatives' stewardship in that area:
» The number of people who think the economy is in recession has dropped by almost half in one year.
» Three out of four voters, including three out of four Liberal supporters and about two out of three NDP voters, think the "Harper government" stimulus program has been effective.
» People are split on whether the government should continue to spend and stimulate or concentrate on controlling spending and reducing the deficit. Even a third of Conservative voters would support continued stimulus, and more than a third of NDP voters would support a focus on spending control. This kind of pattern in the polls often really means a lack of strong views and little polarization..
Put it all together and what is it telling us?
The government took a risk when the economy started to tank, in pushing a massive amount of money into the economy. If the economy hadn't recovered, people would have been angry at the government for the lack of progress plus the massive indebtedness. The left, centre and right would have all had their reasons to be pondering a change.
But, at least as of now, voters seem to be saying the gamble is paying off. South of the border, an epic struggle is taking place over brutal fiscal challenges. State governments are in deep trouble and Washington is facing recurring gridlock.
Here in Canada, only a few weeks ahead of the next federal budget, there is little sense of public drama about the budget's contents, although it may well result in the calling of an election. If so, it may have very little to do with public opinion about the economic policy contained in the budget. The choices the Finance Minister makes will likely not be all that controversial: He's under surprisingly little pressure to do massive spending cuts, and feels even less need to pump more money into the economy.
True, there are polls that show people are cool to the idea of corporate tax cuts, but cool and warm are two settings on the dial that don't really lead to any political change. "Frosty" or "white hot" and you have the makings of a serious political fight. Ask yourself if you are running into many people who are white hot about corporate taxes, one way or another?
None of this means that all hope is lost for opposition parties. The management style of the Harper government of Canada in recent weeks has been more consistent with what normally happens when a government has been in office a lot longer, and become accident prone and tone-challenged. None of the individual issues (from in-and-out to Bev Oda to ethnic advertising) might be enough to arouse public anger on its own, but Michael Ignatieff is likely treading more solid ground by talking about these as questions of character, and a pattern of abuse of power, arrogance and lack of accountability.
If we really are only a few weeks from the next writ, though, opponents of the Conservatives would do well to recognize that there is more risk than reward in trying to make the next election be about economic management.