(photo by KMR Photography via Flickr)

Election 2015: recession can have major impact on federal election, says U of T political scientist

“It is the symbolic aspect that matters for politics,” Chris Cochrane explains

Statistics Canada announced on Sept. 1 that the country's Gross Domestic Product has declined for the second consecutive quarter. 

This qualifies the Canadian economy as experiencing a “technical recession.”

Confirmation of a recession will have a symbolic but also important impact on the federal election campaign, says U of T’s Chris Cochrane.

U of T News has been interviewing University of Toronto experts, asking for their take on campaign issues, polling, debates and more in the lead-up to election day on Oct. 19. Recent features have shared campaign analysis from researchers in statistics, economics, marketing, law and other disciplines.

Read more Election 2015 coverage from U of T News

Writer Alan Christie spoke with Cochrane, a professor of political science at U of T, about how news of the recession will affect the path to election day.

What kind of impact will the recession have on the campaign?
There is no meaningful difference between a very small contraction over two quarters and very small growth over two quarters from an economic standpoint.

But it is the symbolic aspect that matters for politics.

If the opposition parties are able to say – with all the support of every definition – that we are in a recession, then it does clarify for voters that economic conditions are poor.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the economy is doing well, apart from the oil sector. Will this Statscan report weaken his argument?
Ultimately, people will be looking at how they feel about their over-all economic prospects. One of the quotes I really like is this: a recession is when your neighbour is unemployed, a depression is when you are unemployed.That’s the big issue the Conservatives really have to worry about.
Do people feel positive, not just about the way the economy is performing now, but where the economy is headed? Are they optimistic about their prospects in the next four years? And, if they’re not – if there is a sense of doom and gloom – then it doesn’t matter whether people blame the government. It will be a pessimistic vote and pessimistic votes tend to go against incumbents. 

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has said he will bring a balanced budget. Do you think people will believe he can do that without raising taxes or cutting programs?

The NDP has to release a fully-costed budget that people will assess. But I think it is not a secret that if the government wants to spend on more things, it has to find the money from somewhere.

I would be surprised if the NDP didn’t raise taxes or undo some of the Conservative tax breaks like income-splitting for instance. Universal child care alone will cost $5 billion. It’s not unaffordable, not insurmountable, but it is obviously money they will have to find. 

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says he would produce budget deficits for three years to pay for a major infrastructure program. What is your view on that?
Again, it is not a big issue if there is a small surplus or a small deficit. The idea to spend on infrastructure was a bold pronouncement, but I get the sense the Liberals are throwing a ‘Hail Mary’ on a couple of fronts. 

The amount they are proposing is not a major investment. I have seen estimates that it would be only a fraction of what is needed in terms of infrastructure spending across the country.

But the symbolism of it is important, because now the Liberals become, first and foremost, the party of infrastructure.

Will the Green Party benefit at all from the country being in a recession?
I am not sure whether it will help them or hurt them. There are two cross-forces happening here.

On one hand, the fact that the electorate is in such a bad mood about the economy could make some people vote outside the mainstream parties.

I agree with their strategy that tries to show how protecting the environment does not have major economic costs. But, if the economy continues to be at the top of mind for most people, the Greens may have to take a back seat.

What lingering effects will this recession have as we head towards election day on Oct. 19?
This is an interesting problem for the Conservatives. First, there was the  Duffy trial. The Conservatives want to avoid questions about that.

Then, the traditional Conservative issue – the one they would want to talk about – is the economy. But now they can’t really rest on that issue either.

The question I have is, ‘what exactly do the Conservatives want to talk about for the rest of the campaign?’ They certainly don’t want to be reminding people about the economic conditions, especially when the economy is not doing very well.             

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