Harper’s recovery?

The economy’s looking up, and so is the PM’s approval rating

Harper’s recovery?“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, summoning all the passion this was due, “I am pleased to formally announce today the creation of the Federal Economic Development Agency for southern Ontario.” He held for applause. “Or,” Stephen Harper continued, “as it will be known by its short title, FedDev Ontario.”

After a few more sentences on this bureaucratic achievement—of the sort that must feel unnatural to a man once so suspicious of government intervention—he reached for meaning with the aplomb of an inspirational office poster. “As Winston Churchill once noted,” the Prime Minister said, “ ‘Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.’ ”

This—on the occasion of an announcement in Kitchener, Ont., last week—was what may come to be recognized as vintage Harper. Simple and unexciting. A small, but relatively unimpeachable, response to a large problem. A blue back-drop behind him, a small white maple leaf and the words “Action Plan” in a large font on either side of his head.

With such stuff has Stephen Harper attempted, somewhat tardily, to master the primary difficulty of the past eight months. Indeed, with the worst economic calamity in a generation looking to be near an end, and after several notable missteps, the Prime Minister seems very nearly to have steadied himself again, no small accomplishment for a politician for whom steadiness is supposed to be a primary point of appeal.

“There isn’t this burning desire, at this point in time, to bring back the Liberals. Harper has the opportunity to win again,” says Tim Powers, the Ottawa political consultant who has worked with the Conservative side. “People were writing, prematurely, in the spring, his obituary. Well, now it’s a new game.”

Where once he seemed hopeless, Stephen Harper now appears steadfast. Or at least resilient, if not exactly ascendent. “He’s certainly in a far more attractive position today than he was in spring,” concurs Frank Graves, the veteran pollster of EKOS Research. “Looking at things today, it’s not like the Tories and Harper have improved that much. They’re, frankly, still sort of stuck in the same place, but the lustre appears to be off Mr. Ignatieff.”

And that too is no small feat. Especially for a Prime Minister who should, by various measures, be struggling to maintain any hold on power.

In victory, a mere 10 months ago, his government was emboldened and his primary opponent demoralized. But within weeks his government was struggling for survival after a nakedly partisan attempt to financially wound the competition inspired talk of a coalition. That turmoil expedited a change in the Liberal leadership, and soon enough Michael Ignatieff was boosting both Liberal poll numbers and fundraising totals. Meanwhile, a recession Harper promised would not come had arrived, necessitating a federal deficit he told voters he would never run.

Then it all changed again. In late June it was Ignatieff, faced with the choice of forcing an election or letting Harper’s government survive, who seemed at a loss. The Liberal leader made a number of public demands, most of which he then ignored. Ignatieff and Harper met privately and a bipartisan working group was struck to investigate improvements to Employment Insurance. Ignatieff claimed a kind of victory, but Harper seemed hardly bothered by the outcome.

The weeks since have been hot and humid and quiet. But in the absence of activity around Ottawa, the economy has seemed to stabilize. Though 45,000 more jobs were lost in July, the unemployment rate remains at 8.6 per cent, never having reached the double-digit peaks of the last recession in the early 1990s. Indeed, though Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty were quick to counsel caution, the Bank of Canada went so far last month as to predict that an escape from recession was imminent.

Meanwhile, slowly but surely, Conservative party poll numbers have crept back, Harper’s side now more or less equal with Ignatieff’s Liberals. “The fact that the Conservative numbers have generally held up through this downturn is actually quite impressive,” says pollster Nik Nanos.

There is at least one important caveat. “The thing is,” adds Nanos, “the general wisdom is that it doesn’t matter what you do—if you happen to be an incumbent in a downturn you will get punished.” That general wisdom is supported by available evidence. Since 1926, when reliable monthly data began being kept, Statistics Canada numbers show 13 recessions. Of the 12 elections that occurred during or after those downturns, the incumbent party won—and avoided having its majority reduced to a minority—only three times. (The other nine times, the incumbent lost outright, or was reduced to a minority.)

Precedent may be tempered by present circumstance. Graves argues the current downturn is unique in its perception—that where the rate of unemployment used to be the primary driver of confidence or insecurity in a recession, wealthy boomers have made the stock market the greater force this time. “The mild recovery that the Conservatives have experienced has been largely affluent Conservative voters from the last election, who defected are now going back,” Graves says. “And they’re coming right out of the Liberals.”

According to Nanos, whatever credit Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin are due for balancing the budget in the ’90s, voters still associate the Conservatives with fiscal management. Owing to strong banks, natural resources and good luck, Canada may be uniquely situated to thrive in the recession’s aftermath (see “Our Big Chance,” on page 31) and having loudly put billions toward infrastructure spending and bailing out the auto industry, Harper may eventually be in position to assign himself all sorts of credit for whatever good may come.

Whatever Harper’s success this particular summer, it is understandably tied to Ignatieff’s lack thereof. Though perhaps not quite a political sensation when the House of Commons recessed for the summer, two months of relative quiet have slowed whatever momentum the Liberal leader had before his awkward truce with the Prime Minister. From a peak of 50 per cent approval in April, just 29 per cent of respondents approved of Ignatieff’s performance in an EKOS poll released last week. His disapproval numbers, meanwhile, have climbed to 38 per cent.

Well-publicized activity may assuage critics who lament Ignatieff has not been visible enough this summer—a complaint Harper himself faced when he was leader of the opposition. Ignatieff spent last week touring Atlantic Canada, charming the locals and rousing the faithful. At the end of the month, he will gather Liberal MPs for a summer caucus meeting in Sudbury, Ont. And after that will come what is likely to be a closely watched visit to China. In the meantime, the party has been busy readying itself and fundraising—nearly matching the Conservatives dollar-for-dollar in the year’s second quarter—and Ignatieff has settled on a chief of staff, close ally Ian Davey replacing former MP Paul Zed, who had held the title on a temporary basis.

David Smith, the Liberal senator and national campaign co-chair, argues Harper has enjoyed something of a vacation this summer—“You have to bear in mind that he’s had a free ride for a couple of months now because when the House isn’t sitting, he’s not facing question period”—and he is not among those who see the Prime Minister in the clear if the economy is indeed on the rebound. “Well, sure, you can argue that,” Smith says. “But, on the other hand, Stephen is not the warmest guy in the world. He’s not somebody that various sectors of Canadian society gravitate toward.”

This is slightly more than partisan conjecture. According to EKOS, while Harper’s standing has improved over the summer and 36 per cent now approve of his performance, 47 per cent of Canadians still disapprove. And while a third of Canadians still aren’t sure about Ignatieff, only 18 per cent are similarly non-committal about the Prime Minister. But what Canadians might find most lacking is a credible alternative of greater pull—the last image of Ignatieff not being a particularly magnetic one. “I think that the Liberals have probably realized as much of a gain in the ballot box and on the leadership front as possible without putting vision and policy and more Michael Ignatieff in the window,” Nanos says. “A lot of voters are thinking, ‘Okay, so the Liberals have a new leader. Now what?’ ”

Smith says answers are forthcoming. Until then, at least, Harper has hope and opportunity.

Though the EI working group has inspired public sniping from both sides, it may yet yield some kind of compromise. Either way, the Prime Minister had already indicated an intent to make reforms in the fall. The Conservatives will be due to deliver another report card on their economic stimulus efforts when the House returns in September. If they survive that, they will also have a chance to table the traditional fall economic update. And while Steven Fletcher, the minister of state for democratic reform, has renewed talk of eliminating the vote subsidy, the Prime Minister’s Office says the focus will be on the economy and the government’s crime agenda.

“Minority government eschews the big idea,” Power says. “I think what you will have is practical approaches from the Prime Minister. The big idea guys of recent memory—Stéphane Dion and Paul Martin—went up in flames. I don’t think the Prime Minister has a desire to self-immolate. I think his strength is not being the advocate of the big idea, but being the steady hand, with some practical approaches, on the rudder of Canada.”

On this, the book may already have been written. This spring, Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary political scientist and once one of Stephen Harper’s closest allies, released an expanded edition of Harper’s Team, his insider’s account of the “Conservative rise to power.” In an added final chapter—“The Politics of Survival”—he reflects on the crisis of last winter, the damage done to the Prime Minister’s reputation and the danger presented by a recession. He publicly counsels Harper to focus on the business of government, comfort the party faithful and avoid unnecessary nastiness. But his most trenchant analysis is less a prescription for the future than an observation of the past.

“To end on a personal note, I went through many ups and downs with Stephen. He has never made it easy for himself,” Flanagan writes. “But he has powers of recuperation, and those who now predict his demise because the economy is down and because he made some tactical errors shouldn’t start writing his epitaph. Just as Stephen found a way to survive against the threat of the coalition, he will find a way to lead Harper’s team into the field again.”

With John Geddes