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When the NDP speaks about the economy, the words now usually come from Andrew Thomson. He's been in federal politics a month, running in a riding, Eglinton-Lawrence, his party has never won. But he's held the news conferences, appeared on TV and handled interviews.
His is the face that Thomas Mulcair has tried to put on NDP economic policy. Mr. Thomson is 48, a former Saskatchewan finance minister, with a track record for fiscal restraint.
His run in Eglinton-Lawrence might have presaged a battle with the Conservative incumbent, Finance Minister Joe Oliver. But Mr. Oliver has kept a low profile – prompting his opponents to tease him with a Twitter hashtag, #WheresJoe. His biggest public foray was speaking to financial newswires in Turkey at a meeting of G20 finance ministers. Clearly, the Conservatives have someone else as the campaign face for economic policy: Stephen Harper.
The economy is the big issue, and voters care about approach – economic persona – as much as policy. That's why Mr. Thomson is in, and Mr. Oliver is on the side. It's also why the Liberals have a half-dozen economic spokespersons. The parties are trying to show Canadians who they are when it comes to the economy.
That's where Mr. Thomson came in. The NDP had other economic spokespersons, such as Toronto MP Peggy Nash, a former labour negotiator, and B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, who worked in economic development in Costa Rica and as a consultant in British Columbia. But neither has the classic finance minister's C.V.
Mr. Thomson already was one. His first Saskatchewan budget, in 2006, slashed corporate taxes. He served during the tenure of debt-tackling NDP Saskatchewan premiers Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert. Mr. Mulcair wants people to see similar instincts in his federal NDP.
"We've been around the cabinet table, and we've made those kinds of decisions," Mr. Thomson said in an interview, echoing Mr. Mulcair's talking point on experience. "I think we come at it from a pragmatic standpoint."
There's one disconnect: Mr. Thomson is trying to break into a Conservative-Liberal race in Eglinton-Lawrence, meaning he faces a steep climb to get elected, even if the NDP wins. But for the campaign, he's got the job.
Where the NDP once complained about Mr. Harper's deficit "obsession," Mr. Thomson says Justin Trudeau's Liberals "hit the panic button" by stating they'd run deficits to spend on economic stimulus. The Conservatives failed to get the manufacturing sector going, he said, so the NDP's answer is tax incentives for manufacturing and small business. "This is not 2008," he said. "What we actually need to do is assist the economy in restructuring and retooling. And we need to help business in reinvesting in that."
That's not the typical NDP tone. It's an effort to deflate the NDP's image as spenders. Mr. Harper, certainly, plans to pump it up. At a stop in Victoriaville, Que., on Friday, he warned that the opposition parties plan "vastly expanding budgets and raising taxes and running ongoing deficits." He added: "That is a recipe for ruin."
Those are Conservative talking points, but it's usually Mr. Harper making them. He was on TV the day statistics showed Canada had fallen into a technical recession. Mr. Oliver tweeted.
On one level, that shouldn't surprise: Mr. Harper's campaign signs say: "Proven Leadership." The safe hands the Conservatives sell are his. Mr. Oliver speaks to finance wonks, but sometimes comes off as cold. Mr. Harper, not warm but reassuring to many, carries the message to Main Street.
Mr. Oliver insists he hasn't vanished. "It's certainly correct that the Prime Minister is the lead spokesman for the party. He's the prime minister," he said in an interview Friday. He noted his G20 visit, and local campaign. "I've been focusing primarily on my riding." His recounting of the Conservative economic message is safety first – that in a period of instability and slow growth, Canada must stick with balanced budgets and low taxes.
The Liberals, meanwhile, have put forward a half-dozen faces for economic policy, including former ministers Ralph Goodale, John McCallum and Scott Brison, as well as Morneau Shepell CEO Bill Morneau and former financial journalist Chrystia Freeland. If Justin Trudeau takes fire for lacking economic credentials, the message is that he's surrounded.
All cite the same economists – such as former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge and BMO Financial Group vice-chairman Kevin Lynch – backing the idea of stimulus-spending on infrastructure. "We have put out in our platform exactly what all the world's smartest economists are agreed countries should be doing," Ms. Freeland said. "The obstacles have been people being afraid of making the political arguments."
And the other guys? The Conservatives, she said, have "a quasi-religious approach to economic policy" – following the same policies even if they aren't working. And the NDP, she argued, don't know who they are, making "Santa Claus" spending promises while embracing "Conservative budget rhetoric."