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Advice for Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau: Hammer Harper on the economy

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Here's some free advice for a couple of would-be Canadian prime ministers who are both in the news these days, the NDP's Tom Mulcair and the Liberals' Justin Trudeau: Hammer Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the economy.

Both of them were with their party faithful yesterday -- Mulcair at the final day of the NDP's policy convention in Montreal and Trudeau at his coronation as Liberal leader in the evening in Ottawa. Either of them, it is said here, has the potential to form the next government of Canada if the planets line up the right way.

But that means, to succeed, something is going to have to go wrong for Harper -- because, as we pretty well all know, more often than not opposition parties don't win elections so much as governments lose them.

And the strongest card in Harper's hand right now is the economy -- crazy as it may seem to readers of this blog, public opinion polling consistently shows voters trust him on it, and they don't necessarily trust either opposition party as much on economic matters. Moreover, until recently the economy has been ticking along smoothly enough for government work.

As a result, though, the economy is also Harper's greatest weakness.

The Big Three issues that matter to Canadians on just about every pollster's radar screen nowadays are the economy, health care and the environment.

Combined with our sourpuss prime minister's unappealing personality, they have the potential to add up to the Four Horsemen of the Tory Apocalypse -- but it's the economy that rides the pale horse!

These issues don’t always come up in the same order from poll to poll, but the economy will tend to bob to the top of the worry list whenever the real economy doesn't seem to be doing as well as it ought. So it should concern the Harper's so-called Conservative Party of Canada that so many Canadian public opinion surveys show concern about the economy trending upward as the economy itself softens.

As for health care and the environment, Canadians don’t trust the Harper Conservatives on either file -- and with good reason, as their agenda on both is well known. Those agendas, it can be said with confidence, are to destroy public health care and ignore the environment, especially where either issue gets in the way of encouraging the pursuit of private profit.

Still, they'll try -- if only half-heartedly -- to do better in those areas. Look for more fluff in the months ahead about "Green Conservatism" and more pledges not to mess with health care … at least until the next ginned-up economic crisis.

If the Harper Conservatives' stewardship of the economy is not particularly sound in reality, they're stuck with their approach because they view the funds it can raise as essential to their long-term effort to implement the other key planks in their plan for the political and economic deconstruction of Canada.

With only a few words changed, Tariq Ali's brilliantly pithy assessment of Margaret Thatcher's program in Britain could as easily be used to describe Harper's plans for Canada today: "On the economy the Thatcherite model (astonishingly, still being praised by blind politicians in denial) was effectively the deindustrialization of the country, the purchase of working-class votes by squandering the monies that accrued from North Sea oil and laying the foundations for a financialized economic model that exploded with the Wall Street crash of 2008."

Replace the worlds "North Sea oil" with "Alberta Oil Sands" and you've pretty much got the Harper scheme in a nutshell. No need to drop the term Thatcherite.

That's why they're in such a lather to complete those pipelines so quickly.

But as long as the economy is perceived to be burbling along as well as can be expected, the Harper Conservatives can likely cobble together enough votes between their die-hard market-fundamentalist and social conservative supporters and wet Tory voters fearful of upsetting the economic applecart.

Voters for whom either the environment or health care is the top-of-mind issue are much more likely to have figured out where the Harper Government really wants to go in these areas and hence are much less likely to vote for Conservatives.

Then there's the matter of the PM's personal popularity. As pollster Frank Graves put it in iPolitics Friday, Harper's personal approval numbers are not particularly auspicious lately.

"…But he has shown considerable resilience in the face of such challenges in the past," observed Graves, who is the founder and president of EKOS Research Associates Inc. "The more important threat to Mr. Harper is the state of public outlook on the economy -- and its impact on how confident Canadians are that the country and the government are moving in the right direction. This is the challenge which -- unaddressed -- is most likely to be fatal to Mr. Harper's future prospects." (Italics added by me.)

"Numerous indicators show that concerns about the economy are the dominant concerns of Canadians and that long-term anxieties about our economic future are mounting," Graves noted elsewhere in the piece. "The notion that we were the stalwart economic performer in the G8 has been displaced as our growth and growth forecasts have cooled substantially. There is a broad sense that the middle class (Mr. Harper's prime political constituency) is in deep trouble. While they may be comforted by the thought that at least we aren't Greece or Spain, the long grind of growing fears of economic stagnation -- or worse, erosion -- weigh heavily on an incumbent after a certain amount of time.”

I hope Graves will forgive me for quoting him at such length, but this is a key point. It's not just that the economy is Harper's greatest strength. It is his only strength.

This is why the Harperites "came out swinging" at Trudeau within moments of his victory last night -- they have been swinging at Mulcair for some time, of course -- mocking his famous name and claiming he lacks experience.

Well, good luck to them on that. Unlike Trudeau, who has been a teacher, their own leader is a political and Astroturf hack who has never held a "real job" in his life.

But both the Liberals and the New Democrats will do better not to rise to that bait but to attack Harper on the economic front instead.

Indeed, for the reasons noted above, it is axiomatic that his opponents attack him now, strongly, consistently and continually, on his current economic performance and its future economic potential.

Every doubt that can be raised about the ability of the Harper fundamentalists to manage the economy needs to be raised now -- especially while the economy is clearly foundering -- because the perception Tories are competent economic managers is the foundation that underlies Harper's only chance of continued success.

The evidence is in: the Thatcherite market fundamentalism that Harper espouses is a cruel fraud. It has proved to be a catastrophe wherever it has been implemented. Even as we ponder this, it is hollowing out the economy of Central Canada and leaving future generations of Western Canadians with the bill for the environmental cost of financing his scheme.

Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Trudeau: Hammer him on the economy!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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