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Interiors of Toronto Eaton Center on Yonge St., Toronto January 28, 2014.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

A standard line spouted by Stephen Harper's opponents in the election campaign is that he foolishly placed Canada's economic eggs in the oil basket. It makes for a simple, voter-digestible sound bite, but it obscures the reality. If Mr. Harper has bet the economy heavily on one thing, it is you and me – the Canadian consumer.

What's more, by all appearances, he is campaigning on a plan that would continue to do so.

The Conservative Leader underlined that with this week's pronouncement that if re-elected, his party would make it a key goal to increase the number of Canadian homeowners by 700,000 over the next five years. To achieve this, the party estimated, Canada's home-ownership rate (the proportion of Canadian households that own their home) would have to rise to a record 72.5 per cent, from 67.6 per cent in 2013, the most recent data published by Statistics Canada.

Of course, a Conservative government would not buy those houses and condos for all those Canadians. But it would maintain a set of policies – personal tax cuts, tax breaks for homeowners and balanced budgets – that it believes would continue to foster and encourage home buying.

This is emblematic of the Harper Conservatives' overriding approach to managing the Canadian economy in the postrecession years. The government cut taxes while cutting its budget deficit, giving consumers the incentive to spend and thus feed economic activity at the same time as the government constrains its own contribution. Oil? That was a fluke. Shifting consumption from the government to the consumer? That was a large and very deliberate strategy.

A happy consequence of the deficit-slashing policy has been that the country has leaned on monetary policy (low interest rates from the Bank of Canada) rather than fiscal policy (government spending) to stoke the postrecession economy whenever it needed it – and it has needed it often. Low interest rates are also highly consumer-friendly, adding further incentive for people to shell out for bigger-ticket items such as cars and houses.

This all made plenty of sense in the earlier stages of the recovery, when Canada's financial-sector health and domestic demand strength relative to those of other industrialized countries, and the lack of demand for Canadian exports from the deeply hurting U.S. economy, meant that the consumer was the one reliable place to turn to keep the Canadian economy afloat.

And for a long time, it worked like a charm. Consumers took the government's incentives to keep spending, shook off their recessionary fears, and settled into the driver's seat in Canada's economic recovery.

In the five years leading up to the Great Recession, household consumption accounted for 76 per cent of Canada's total final consumption growth. In the five years after the recession, it jumped to 86 per cent. In 2014, it was 98 per cent. While household consumption has grown by 13.5 per cent in real (inflation-adjusted) terms since 2009, government consumption has grown just 5 per cent.

But as households have been carrying more of the growth load, they have ramped up their debt, perhaps dangerously. Total household credit-market debt has more than doubled in the past decade, and is now approaching $1.9-trillion. The ratio of household credit-market debt to disposable income has risen from 126 per cent a decade ago to a record 165 per cent today.

In effect, the Conservatives have traded government debt for consumer debt. In solving one problem, it helped create another.

What is its solution? More of the same. Mr. Harper would still count on stimulating further economic growth by balancing his budgets and putting disposable income back in the hands of consumers. He keeps saying so, at campaign stop after campaign stop.

And so the Conservatives are committing to maintain conditions that will keep Canadians buying homes, the most costly and debt-intensive of all consumer purchases, at a brisk pace over the next half-decade. This despite a Canadian housing market that is, by the Bank of Canada's reckoning, somewhere between 10 per cent and 30 per cent overvalued; home affordability that has deteriorated to alarmingly poor levels in the country's two biggest markets, Toronto and Vancouver; and total national mortgage debt that is up more than 40 per cent since the recession ended.

The consumer-driven economy has proven addictive to the Harper Conservatives, but what has worked in the past might not work in the future. One look at consumers' overstretched debt levels tells us that this well is bound to run dry. Push it too far, and the potential damage will be much more widespread than any oil shock.