CANADA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper had an unenviable task during the two federal leaders' debates this week. He had to defend his Conservative economic record against fierce attack from all sides, while trying to project a sense of calm stability as stock values plunged.
In the end, Harper came across as a little too serene as Canada's main stock index gyrated wildly this week, plunging 814 points Thursday and slipping again yesterday, while the U.S. Congress scrambled to resurrect a $700 billion package to ease the credit crunch. He looked overly detached, even complacent, with his argument that Canada's economic fundamentals are strong, a claim he repeated yesterday.
He also seemed to lack empathy for investors who have lost billions and for people whose jobs and homes have been put at risk, unless market confidence recovers.
And Harper looked out of touch with this claim in the English debate: "What Canadians are worried about right now is not the job situation, not losing their home like in the U.S. What they're worried about is they see the stock market problems. We see big drops in the stock market in the energy sector, in the commodities sector."
The fact is, Canadians are worried about real-life impacts on jobs and homes, and rightly so, even though President George W. Bush finally signed the massive U.S. bailout bill into law yesterday. Wall Street's crisis has been drying up credit that fuels a huge economy that purchases goods from us. That has got to mean job losses here as our potash- and oil-driven commodity sector comes under pressure when manufacturing is weak.
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion wasn't "panicking," whatever Harper may say, when he urged some forward-thinking in Ottawa to bolster public confidence by protecting savings and pensions, and by accelerating planned investments in infrastructure and manufacturing to help stimulate the economy. While Harper's rivals don't pretend to have all the answers, they are demanding, reasonably enough, that he give some thought to the matter and prepare contingency plans.
Hard though it is to credit, the Conservatives have yet to even update their economic growth forecast from last February's budget, though the economy has deteriorated sharply in recent months. And the Tories still haven't rolled out their party platform, with just 10 days left to the Oct. 14 vote, though they plan to do so early next week.
This is not prudent stewardship; it is leaving people in the dark. Worse, it may be whistling in the dark.
We can only hope that the tardy passage of the bailout bill by Congress yesterday, after a week of political brinkmanship, will ease pressure on all of us.
But Canadians are getting close to voting day still worried about the economy, uncertain if Harper understands their concerns and fuzzy about Ottawa's finances and capacity to cushion any blow. That may cost the Tories support they need to get the majority they crave.
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