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Conservatives Can't Compete With Liberals On Economic Issues

We should aspire to create an economy that includes and benefits everybody, especially those excluded for so long.

01/17/2018 08:53 EST | Updated 01/17/2018 09:10 EST

In the heart of the Ottawa political bubble is another bubble of active users of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram centered around Canadian politics (#cdnpoli if you will.)

When I open my phone, I can't scroll through without finding dozens of tweets from Cabinet Ministers, Liberal Members of Parliament and commentators, and local supporters pulling from a crib sheet of positive economic stats. They note that under the Trudeau government, "Canada now has its lowest unemployment rate in over 40 years," "Our growth leads the G7," and that "the economy created about 700,000 new jobs since our government took office."

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the APEC Summit in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 20, 2016.

It's clear that the Liberal communications plan is rooted in one of the iron laws of politics enumerated in 1992 by Clinton campaign guru James Carville: "It's the economy, stupid."

What isn't clear, however, is whether the Tories have a plan to combat this message. Just two years ago, they were the self-styled party of "economic action" led by a taciturn Prime Minister with a background in economics (a credential repeated ad nauseam by Conservative apparatchiks.)

At the time, Liberals didn't have much of a response. Although the historical context indicates that Liberal governments are generally more fiscally responsible than Conservative governments, arguments that require listener to consider historical context aren't often very sexy and don't win elections.

The Tories haven't yet had a number to hang over Liberal heads.

Despite Paul Martin's sterling economic credentials as Finance Minister, which gave him license to run and govern as Prime Minister on a platform of aggressive and overdue social reforms, the post-Jean Chrétien Liberals faced down a serious loss of trust following the Gomery Commission being called. After delivering a seemingly mortal blow to the Liberal brand, the Conservatives were able to seize the economic narrative that had underpinned the previous 13 years of Liberal government.

In the present day, however, the Tories haven't yet had a number to hang over Liberal heads. This message of Liberal economic bona fides is one that is particularly damaging to the Conservative brand.

Deficits are a point that remain an open challenge for the Liberals to rein in, but there are indications that Canadians are okay with being in the red right now, in both senses.

Canadians won't soon forget that Liberals openly committed to running deficits in order to boost economic growth in times of low interest rates, which are the investments they are now seeing fruit from.

Part of this inability to compete on economic issues comes from the top. Unlike his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, the current leader of the Conservatives, isn't an economist. His party will need more than a few former Harper-era ministers, and his economic plan will certainly need to be more than simply not doing things that Trudeau is doing, if they want to make economics a battleground in 2019.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Andrew Scheer, leader of Canada's Conservative Party, speaks during a news conference following the Conservative Party Of Canada Leadership Conference in Toronto on May 27, 2017.

All economies are cyclical, and Canada's is no exception. There will be ebbs and flows in economic growth and employment, neither of which can nor should be controlled by government. However, long-term economic trends are being shaped by increased economic participation by low-income individuals, women and a diverse range of individuals who have been sidelined for too long.

Liberals understand that the biggest untapped resource is those low-income individuals who their transfers seek to directly boost, because these individuals want to contribute, but currently cannot do so because their most basic needs aren't met. In addition to being simply the right thing to do, helping those struggling with poverty and homelessness also makes good economic sense.

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Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has been deservedly lauded for his work to provide a national housing strategy, to deliver a coordinated plan to combat homelessness and to improve benefits for seniors and new parents. It's extremely fitting to place a former economist at the heart of the government's plan to reduce inequality. It was no accident.

Carville was right: it truly boils down to the economy, especially during elections. We should aspire to create an economy that includes and benefits everybody, especially those excluded for so long.

It's the right thing to do.

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