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Wednesday, 18 July 2012 14:34

Opposition needs less moral outrage and more talk about the economy

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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For most Canadians the hot, long days of summer will not be the same without spending some time around the barbecue.
The same applies to federal politicians, for whom the annual barbecue circuit is an opportunity to wear their cowboy hats and to dish out some meaty detail about their successes in Ottawa during the past year.

The Harper government's omnibus bill of 425 pages that amended around 70 laws will no doubt be a common point of discussion.
For the opposition parties it was a hard act to swallow and the talking points around NDP and Liberal barbecues are sure to include references to the government's abuse of Parliament and how this was just another example of the Conservative's general lack of respect for democracy.
There will be a more celebratory mood at Conservative Party barbecues as they reflect on their first year as a majority government, which included successes such as the end of the long-gun registry and the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board.
That was certainly the case during Prime Minister Stephen Harper's annual Calgary Stampede barbecue on July 7. He told the sold-out event, which was attended by about 900 supporters, that Canada is a “great country rising” with a solid economy that has weathered the global financial crises much better than Europe, Japan or the United States.
“Under our Conservative government, Canada will not slip back the way so many other developed countries are slipping back,” he said.
He considered the omnibus bill's changes to employment insurance, environmental review rules and funding for Old Age Security to be part of the government's efforts to secure Canada's economic future.
“Not every one of these measures is popular with everybody, but they are all good for Canada and that's what this is all about,” he said.
This has become a common refrain from the Harper government whenever it defended any policy proposals against opposition attacks. The focus on the economy as the key issue for voters gave the Tories their majority in the May 2011 federal election over the call on citizens from then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff to “rise up” against the Conservative's contempt for Parliament.
But it did not appear to have been a lesson learned by opposition parties, whose main line of attack against the government has not really shifted since then. Saskatchewan's lone Liberal MP Ralph Goodale recently wrote on his blog about Prime Minister Harper's “arrogant and arbitrary manner” whose government has invoked closure proceedings more than 25 times in the House of Commons to shorten debates.
Such concerns are quite relevant, especially when your party is in opposition. Prime Minister Harper has expressed similar opinions over omnibus bills and the way the Liberal Party ruled when he was on the opposition bench.
His government's behaviour has also caught the attention of the influential London-based news magazine, The Economist. In an editorial earlier this month, the magazine said “Mr. Harper has acquired a reputation for playing fast and loose with the rules” and it described his government as intolerant of criticism and dissent.
“Though the prime minister once campaigned as a crusader for accountability and openness, he has acquired the habit of secrecy,” The Economist stated.
While this type of criticism might provide the opposition with some useful talking points for the barbecue circuit, their real beef should be with the government's economic policy. In uncertain times voters are looking for a steady hand on the steering wheel, and Prime Minister Harper has already staked out his claim.
“We will not just be one of the world's older economic powers, we are determined that Canada will be one of the world's next generation of economic powers as well,” he said during his Stampede barbecue.
The opposition will have to present a much clearer view of their economic vision if they want to get voter attention. It did not start well for new NDP leader Thomas Mulcair when his efforts to highlight the need for a more sustainable approach to the development of the resource sector got muddled by his “Dutch disease” remarks.
It resulted in a Tory attack ad about the NDP's “risky economic theories” to which the NDP replied last week when they launched their own attack ad that accused the Harper government of creating the “worst deficit in Canadian history.”
Hopefully a political discussion about Canada's economic future will amount to more than mere mudslinging. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), sluggish productivity is a long-term challenge for the Canadian economy.
The OECD's latest economic survey of Canada, which was released in June, indicated the need for more investment in research and development to boost innovation. It also suggested improvements to the quality and access to tertiary education are required to provide the human capital for economic growth.
“Canada is blessed with abundant natural resources,” the report's co-author Peter Jarrett said. “But it needs to do more to develop other sectors of the economy if it is to maintain a high level of employment and an equitable distribution of the fruits of growth.”
Opposition parties need to do more to provide economic alternatives with a concise critique of the implications of government economic policies. Otherwise they can look forward to a few more summers beyond the next federal election in 2015 to ponder their flagging support over a burger and beer.

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