Financial crises can benefit a party in government, if voters decide the leader is capable and committed. More often, they’re a political disaster.
In this writer’s lifetime, the fortunes of prime ministers John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney suffered from economic downturns. Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper weathered and even profited from them.
Which category will Justin Trudeau join? If the bad news gets any worse, we may soon find out.
The Liberals confronted Monday’s panic with several liabilities. One big problem is that what matters most to them may no longer matter to Canadians.
This government’s priorities include fighting global warming and income inequality, while promoting Indigenous reconciliation and protecting minorities. On Monday, as markets melted along with oil prices, and Canada recorded its first death related to COVID-19, the government introduced a bill to make offering LGBTQ conversion therapy a criminal offence. The legislation is important, but people have other things on their minds right now.
Bill Morneau has presided over deficits every year that he has been Finance Minister. Critics have long warned that running deficits during times of economic growth would leave the government vulnerable in a downturn, which could send those deficits and the debt-to-GDP ratio through the roof. Expect the Conservatives to hammer this theme. The NDP will demand more help for workers who lose their jobs and for those being forced onto welfare. The Bloc Québécois will demand help for Quebec.
If the deficits and unemployment numbers get high enough, the opposition parties could combine to bring this minority Liberal government down.
The second big problem – a problem Canada shares with the world – is U.S. President Donald Trump. In 2008, when failing subprime mortgages created a banking crisis that threatened to bring on a depression, U.S. president George W. Bush gathered together leaders of the Group of 20 countries, who agreed on a co-ordinated policy of stimulus that prevented the worst.
But here’s how Mr. Trump reacted to plunging stock prices on Monday on Twitter: “Saudi Arabia and Russia are arguing over the price and flow of oil. That, and the Fake News, is the reason for the market drop!” Also: “Good for the consumer, gasoline prices coming down!” And: “The Obama/Biden Administration is the most corrupt Administration in the history of our Country!”
Who believes that the United States under this President will guide the world safely through these times?
We face something we have never seen before: a public-health emergency coupled with an oil-price war converging at a time of unprecedented U.S. weakness. There is no handbook for this.
Canada’s health-care system is always under stress; a large increase in the number of coronavirus infections could push it beyond capacity. Quarantines and travel bans were straining the global economy before the oil war. And we had the made-in-Canada economic drag from February’s Indigenous-led rail blockades.
The Bank of Canada, which cut interest rates by 50 basis points last week, has much less manoeuvring room now than in 2008-09. How do you stimulate an economy through interest-rate cuts when rates are already so low?
Provincial governments have less fiscal capacity than Ottawa; they will need and demand additional transfers, further straining federal resources. The situation in Alberta could become very grim; the situation in Atlantic Canada already is.
And remember: The Trudeau government wasn’t very popular even before all this hit the fan.
That said, there’s plenty of silver lining. A first ministers conference was already scheduled for March 13, creating an opportunity to forge a joint federal-provincial response to the health and economic crises, along with an opportunity for governments of every level and stripe to spread the blame.
The Conservatives won’t have a new leader in place until the end of June. The coronavirus spread and the fight over oil prices could have receded by then if Canada and the world somehow avoid falling into recession.
Skillful management of these interweaving crises could bolster Mr. Trudeau’s reputation, strengthening the government in Parliament and increasing the odds of a third Liberal win in the next election.
Some past prime ministers have pulled that off; others, not so much. Let’s hope we don’t get a chance to see how Mr. Trudeau fares.