This is the campaign Stephen Harper wanted—a month ago

On the road, writes Paul Wells, the Conservative leader finally gets to talk foreign policy and economy

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Ottawa on Sunday, August 9, 2015. Canadian's will head to the polls on October 19, 2015.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Ottawa on Sunday, August 9, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/C)

“How do you win this thing?” I asked an adviser to Stephen Harper. Because right now, it’s not at all obvious that they do.

“Turn the lens back to the choice,” the Conservative said. In the six weeks before the vote, the theory goes, Canadians will grow weary of their flirtation with radical tax-and-spenders and decide the old flag, policy and leader aren’t so bad after all.

It’s the eternal hope of embattled incumbents and sometimes it works like a charm. “Don’t compare him to the almighty, compare him to the alternative,” Keith Davey said of Pierre Trudeau in 1972, when re-election turned out to be harder than it should have. Other times, voters decide they really do want to switch horses in midstream. Earlier this year, I noticed that in several jurisdictions around the world, it’s been a bad year for incumbents. Here? We’ll see.

But the Conservative leader’s morning announcement and media availability in North Bay, Ont., must stand as one of his less unpleasant outings this summer so far, considering that so many of the others have been pretty rough. He announced an extension of a mining tax credit that has been popular in the region. And then he took his regulation slate of questions — four from the travelling press, one local, no follow-ups, all in front of the Conservative supporters who had showed up for the announcement — on his topics of predilection, foreign policy and the economy. Ray Novak’s name was not mentioned. Change as good as a vacation.

Related: Why the mineral exploration tax credit is such a bad idea

The first question was on deficits and the wisdom of running any.

The CBC asked Harper, who has run several deficits and is against doing so now, what triggers a switch from one state to the other. His answer was long, and amounted to a series of tests for whether a given set of economic circumstances merits a return to deficits. “Um, look,” the Prime Minister said. “Back in 2008-09 we faced two circumstances we do not face today. Both of them are important. One was obviously a very significant drop, not just in our economic output, but in economic output around the globe. Secondly, we faced a circumstance where the entire global economic and financial system was not functioning properly, not able to properly convert savings into investment.

“So we faced extremely unusual circumstances in 2008-09. We are nowhere near those kinds of circumstances today. And what I’ve said before is that I do not believe you would run a deficit on purpose if the economy is actually showing growth. Our economy will grow this year and that is why we will keep the budget in balance.

“And let me just say what I said last week again. If, just because growth is a little bit slower than you anticipated, you go into deficit, that’s a recipe to go into deficit all the time. That’s the philosophy they got into here in Ontario and that we used to have federally: If the economy’s not growing, you go into deficit because you have to; if it is growing, you go into deficit because you can afford to. Proposing a deficit right now, with economic growth, is a recipe for permanent deficits. It’s why we’re not going to do it, and why I think the country will reject that proposal from the other parties.”

    The next two questions, from CTV and the Canadian Press, were on the topic of the day, Syrian refugees. Should Canada do more?

    “Well, look, I just will repeat what I said before, not just in that particular circumstance but generally,” he said. “Canada is the largest per capita receiver of immigrants and new arrivals in the entire world. And we have resettled, already, some 20,000 Iraqi refugees and a couple thousand Syrian refugees and we have plans to do more.”

    Here he set out ground markedly different from the positions of the NDP and the Liberals. “But I would say repeatedly that as we are doing more, we can’t lose sight of the fact that refugee resettlement alone cannot — cannot in any part of the world — solve this problem. As long as we have organizations like ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, creating literally millions of refugees and threatening to slaughter people all over the world, there is no solution to that through refugee policy. We have to take a firm and military stance against ISIS and that’s what we’re doing.”

    Related reading: Inside the Syrian refugee crisis

    The last question from travelling press came from me, because I’ve stepped onto the Conservative tour for a brief stint. I asked him what he made of the switch in fiscal position the Liberals and NDP have undertaken, with Mulcair running on balanced budgets and Trudeau running on a promise of repeated deficits.

    “Well, first of all, in terms of the NDP, their positions actually… don’t correspond to the numbers that we actually see coming out of their campaign,” Harper said. “Under Mr. Mulcair, the NDP has committed to new spending initiatives that, very conservatively estimated, would ramp up to $35 billion per year. That, by the way, is with 125 promises we haven’t yet even been able to get a reasonable costing for.”

    Here some interpretation might help. It’s common practice for the Conservative campaign to add up every proposal, notion, musing, and debating point that has ever emanated from an opposition party and present it as a promised expenditure for the current campaign. Points raised by other candidates in a leadership race they didn’t win are thrown into the pot, just for effect. The Conservatives ran that play against Stéphane Dion in 2008 and Michael Ignatieff in 2011.

    Harper went on. “Even with [Mulcair’s] massive tax increases, and they are massive, he would come nowhere near to balancing the budget. In fact, I think also the history of the NDP indicates, and we’re seeing this in Alberta, when you go out and you raise taxes on everybody, you don’t balance the budget. All you do is slow economic activity and wreck the economy.

    “So I — this is the same old NDP snake oil. I think what’s most interesting about the other parties is that they propose the same thing every time. No matter what circumstance we’re in, the solution is always just spend tens of billions of dollars more money, and somehow, through magic, through tax increases you’re never going to see or budgets that magically balance themselves, it’s all gonna work. And it never does. And it never does. And that’s why I think Canadians will stick with a tried and true formula that is moving us forward and that is a balanced budget plan with low taxes and investments that actually grow the economy.”

    Here he asked me to remind him what Trudeau’s position is. I said, channelling Trudeau: Mulcair and Harper have given up on the economy and are obsessed with spending cuts.

    “The funny thing is, we’re certainly not. We balanced the budget exactly as we said we would in the last election. What we did is, we restrained the growth of government spending and we made sure that we made the kind of investments that caused the economy to grow so that revenue increased.” Trudeau, he said, has gone through three phases since the spring: claiming that with economic growth, the budget would balance itself; believing Harper would run a deficit this year, and criticizing the notion; and now, planning to run his own deficits. “You know, come on. This is what being not ready is all about.”

    From the partisan crowd, big applause. Harper flew west to British Columbia, this election’s other close-fought battleground after Ontario, for events tonight and tomorrow. The early campaign Stephen Harper wanted was, as of today, a month old.


    Looking for more?

    Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.