Ralph Goodale, the old Liberal warhorse who served as finance minister under Paul Martin, got up in the Commons last week. "In the nine years since the government took office," he said, "job creation has been half of what it was in the nine years before." The nine years before would be when the Liberals were in power.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded by defending his job creation record, citing the troubled world economic environment. Fair enough.
Then he reached for the cyanide. The Liberals, he declared, would turn Canada into another debt-drenched Greece. His government had achieved good results "by pursuing sound economic policies, reducing taxes, focused investment, balancing our budget, all of the things the Liberal Party opposes, all of the things the Liberal Party would reverse to give us the kind of result we have in Greece."
Sitting down for lunch with Mr. Goodale the next day, I referenced the Hellenic comparison. Mr. Goodale chuckled. He ran through a string of economic performance comparisons. Under the Liberal Chrétien and Martin governments, he noted, the average GDP growth rate was double what it's been under the Conservatives. The Tory rate – a 1.7 per cent average – is the lowest posted by any Canadian government since the 1930s.
The member from Saskatchewan went on. Under the Liberals, there were nine straight surpluses beginning in 1996. Under the Conservatives, a string of seven deficits. On the pertinent matter of national debt (as per any Greek comparisons), it went down significantly under the Liberals but has gone up by more than $160-billion under Mr. Harper. The Liberals posted not a single trade deficit while the Harper Conservatives have had one practically every year. The Conservatives have been more impressive on tax cuts, although the Liberals did bring in one of the largest in history. On employment, it's no contest – the Liberals in a walk.
Circumstances need to be noted. The Liberals did not have a brutal global recession with which to contend, but they did inherit a then record $42-billion deficit in 1993. And they did leave the Conservatives a cushy $13-billion surplus and a smiling set of fiscal and regulatory conditions.
Why would Mr. Harper resort to the Grecian slander? If he had the Liberals' broader historical record in mind, that wasn't wise either. Studies show that economic growth has been on average more than 2 per cent higher under Liberal governments than under Conservative ones. On budget balancing, the Tory historical record is one to run from.
Much in the respective records has to do with timing, circumstance and the turn of fortune. Conservative prime minister R.B. Bennett, for example, served during the Great Depression. But even Pierre Trudeau, considered one of the weakest Liberal economic performers, posted GDP numbers more than twice as high as the Harper government.
All this said, you'd never know it from the way Canadians view the respective parties. In most every poll out there, they rank the Conservatives as the better economic managers.
"What's the deal?' I asked Mr. Goodale. "Spin," he replied. The Tories have added countless numbers of flacks to the government payrolls, giving them a huge advantage over opposition parties in weaving tall tales. "Spin is their No. 1 priority. Policy is secondary."
The Conservative strategy, a very smart one, has been to constantly frame the debate in terms of how Canada has done compared to G7 countries. The answer: great. But if you cast a wider net, for example to G20 countries, the result is mediocre.
Debate framing is critical. Mr. Goodale thought back to the loss of the 2006 election. His Liberals had that fine economic record to run on and didn't do it. "If you've got a good story, do not assume that everybody knows it. We made the operating assumption that it was understood. That tactical decision was mistaken."
Indeed it was. But the Liberals haven't learned much from the experience. Their communications team is small in number and short on impact. They are still getting clobbered in the PR game.