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The Progressive Economics Forum

Rhetoric vs Reality: The Harper Govt Economic Record

Speculation is intense that the unofficial election campaign we have already been experiencing for several months, is about to become official: Ottawa is awash in rumours the writ may be dropped as early as this weekend, setting the stage for months of promises, accusations, and photo-ops.

As always the economy will be the top issue.  But with recent bad news, Conservative hopes of cashing in on their reputation as “the best economic managers” have suddenly become faint.  Four straight months of falling real GDP, terrible export and investment numbers, and growing consumer pessimism, make their traditional chest-thumping seem starkly at odds with the painful reality confronted by most Canadians.  On September 1 we will learn if Canada is actually in an official recession (defined as two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth).  Even if we’re not, our performance has been perpetually disappointing.

However, this gap between triumphalist rhetoric and grim reality did not suddenly appear.  In fact, the evidence has been piling up for years – long before the current slowdown – that Canada’s economic performance under the Harper Conservatives has been uniquely poor.

To further investigate this dissonance, I have worked with my Unifor colleague Jordan Brennan to compile an exhaustive empirical comparison of Canada’s economic record under the Harper government, and compared that record to previous postwar Prime Ministers.  The full 64-page study was released today, and is available here.

Here’s what we did:  The performance of the economy under each Prime Minister was described on the basis of 16 conventional and commonly-used indicators of economic progress and well-being. These 16 indicators fall into three broad categories, summarized as follows:

Work: Job-creation, employment rate, unemployment rate, labour force participation, youth employment, and job quality.

Production: Real GDP growth (absolute and per capita), business investment, exports, and productivity growth.

Distribution and Debt: Real personal incomes, inequality, federal public services, personal debt, and government debt.

These are not “touchy-feely” social concerns.  These are the bread-and-butter indicators of real economic progress.  All indicators are measured using annual data from 1946 through 2014, obtained from Statistics Canada and other public sources. Together these 16 indicators provide a composite portrait of overall economic performance and stability under each postwar government.

We considered the record of every Prime Minister who served at least a full year in office.  (We didn’t think that John Turner had much chance, in 77 days, to really affect the country’s economic direction!)  We compared changes, annual average rates of growth, or average levels for each variable, from the year each PM came into office, until the year they left.

If you have been swallowing the rhetoric about Conservatives naturally being the “best economic managers,” then these results are going to shock you.

Harper Critique Table

For 7 of the 16 indicators, the Harper government ranks last (or tied for last) among the nine postwar Prime Ministers. In 6 more cases, it ranks (or is tied) second-last. Among the remaining 3 indicators, the Harper government never ranks higher than sixth out of nine.

Considering the overall average ranking of each Prime Minister (across all 16 indicators), the Harper government receives an average ranking of 8.05 out of a worst-possible 9.0.  That is dead last among the nine postwar governments, and by a wide margin – falling well behind the second-worst government, which was the Mulroney Conservative regime of 1984-93.

The very poor economic record of the Harper government cannot be blamed on the fact that Canada experienced a recession in 2008-09. In fact, Canada experienced a total of ten recessions during the 1946-2014 period. Most governments had to grapple with recession at some point during their tenures – and some Prime Ministers had to deal with more than one. Instead, statistical evidence shows that the recovery from the 2008-09 recession has been the weakest (by far) of any Canadian recovery since the Depression. A uniquely weak recovery, not the fact that Canada experienced a recession at all, helps explains the Harper government’s poor economic rating.

This statistical review confirms that it is far-fetched to suggest that Canada’s economy has been well-managed during the Harper government’s time in office. To the contrary, there is no other time in Canada’s postwar economic history in which Canada’s economy has performed worse than it did under the Harper government.

For Canadians, the legacy of this government has been unemployment, insecurity, and debt.

Click for the full 64-page report, including a complete statistical appendix.

Enjoy and share:

Comments

Comment from Purple Library Guy
Time: July 30, 2015, 1:48 pm

One could argue that the world’s economic situation as a whole is worse now than it was for previous governments. We are after all not the only country to experience unusually tepid recovery from that recession. But then one really ought to ask why. Technology and productivity are higher than ever before; fundamentally things should be better. Only two plausible explanations come to mind: Either the world is being managed worse economically overall than it used to, or the world is experiencing economic difficulties because environmental damage and resource exhaustion are harming the base on which the economy is built. Or both.

But the world economy is being run ever more by the principles espoused by the Conservatives, and they are the party more than any other with a destructive approach to the environment and a “stay the course” attitude to resource use. So even if the problem is the world rather than the Conservatives as such, it is a problem caused collectively by those politically like the Conservatives, and one which they actively seek to worsen. Thus they would still be the worst party to have in government.

Comment from Ivo
Time: August 3, 2015, 8:47 am

P.26 of your report says that Trudeau and Chretien increased the debt, but your graph shows Trudeau and Mulroney (not Chretien) doing so.

Comment from Jim Stanford
Time: August 4, 2015, 9:27 pm

Thank you Ivo for catching that little error. The graph is correct, the text was wrong, and we will make that correction (changing Chretien to Mulroney) ASAP.

Comment from Rick W.
Time: August 5, 2015, 10:19 pm

Purple, I’m tired of the old saw about the mean old world economy raining on the glory that is Harpernomics. The man spends 50% more than a guy like Chretien did and we have precious little to show for the extra money, in fact, IMO many programs key to economic growth in those days have been cut under Harper. Harper supporters grasp at every straw and positive indicator imaginable to show he is the king, even though most real economic benefits were put in place by the Liberals and are paying off now, when Harper happens to be in power. AND Harper opposed these things when he was in opposition. Finally, the economic conditions are not worse now than they ever have been, Trudeau governed during a recession in the early 80s when interest rates were over 20%. Can you imagine how bad our situation would be if Harper was printing money and handing out baby bonus cheques to buy votes, if the interest rates were not hovering at historic lows? Our debt would easily be twice what it is now. Rather than give the guy the benefit of the doubt, let’s call a spade a spade and say that the guy has failed and move on. I can’t think of any stats not shown in the report above that might allow him to claw his way back into consideration. Can you?

Comment from Ken Howe
Time: August 16, 2015, 8:31 am

Although I think Harper’s economic management has been wrong-headed from the get-go, I’m not sure the kind of comparisons in the report are a helpful way to get at this. There are just too many variables.

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