A study was released a few days ago, looking into how the economic performance of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives stacks up against other Canadian governments since the Second World War. It didn't get much attention because it was done by labour-union economists, who don't normally get much traction in the mainstream news media.
But this one is certainly worth a look. Its author, Unifor's Jim Stanford, is no slouch. The study has the appearance of a thorough statistical analysis, and it addresses an important question in the election campaign. Mr. Harper's government will argue that while the economy has certainly hit the skids this year, its overall record of economic management since coming to power in 2006 has been impressive. Opponents will argue the opposite.
The study thoroughly debunks the Conservatives' claim. Having examined 16 economic indicators with extensive data for each, the report concludes that the Conservatives have the worst record of all our governments in the postwar years. "The Harper government ranked last or second last in 13 of the 16 indicators," said Mr. Stanford, who did the study with economist Jordan Brennan.
Opposition parties have made hay of the fact that the Conservatives have the worst average GDP growth over a 10-year stretch than any other government since the 1930s. But this report, which ranks Lester Pearson's government as the most economically successful in the period examined, will give them much more ammunition to work with.
Out of nine governments studied – it didn't include governments like John Turner's, that lasted less than a year – the Harper government finished last in job creation, last in exports, seventh in government debt, second last in personal income growth per capita, in business investment, in youth employment. All indicators were measured using annual data from 1946 through 2014, as obtained from Statistics Canada and other public sources.
The study didn't look at criteria more favourable to the government, such as household wealth. It doesn't include progress on trade agreements, an area where the Conservatives have fared well, despite the recent breakdown of talks on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. But these additions wouldn't tilt the overall balance of a pretty grim picture.
The government says its bad numbers are primarily a result of the global financial crisis. But that ended several years ago, and was more lightly felt in Canada due to pre-existing strong economic fundamentals. Moreover, according to Mr. Stanford, many other governments examined in the study faced unexpected crises and financial shocks, such as the stagflation of the 1970s and the 9/11 calamity.
Mr. Stanford argues that some of this government's poor record flows from an unnecessary push for austerity after the 2008 recession in order to balance the budget. It's a view shared by many economists, who say the balanced-budget fixation has contributed to lower growth than we might otherwise have seen.
The Bank of Canada has been recently going one way with rate cuts in an attempt to boost growth, while the Conservatives have been going the other, holding the line on spending to achieve their cherished balanced-budget goal. That goal seems very much in jeopardy.
Mr. Stanford says the government's tax cutting, which favours mainly the wealthier segments, has not resulted in the economic boost the Conservatives had hoped for. While the U.S. economy is moving ahead strongly, Canada's is not catching on, he says. Investment from the private sector didn't materialize; trickle-down economics hasn't worked.
The Conservatives will argue that labour's bias against them makes Mr. Stanford's report unreliable. But there's a lot of hard statistical data in it that makes it difficult to refute.
For many years, the Conservatives have benefited from their highly effective communications machinery in selling Canadians on the idea that their economy was doing better than others through the big downturn.
That was a true for a period. But it didn't reflect many of the problems Canada was encountering. A different picture is coming into focus now – at a very difficult moment on the political calendar.