Poor Finance Minister Joe Oliver!
Is it any wonder that he had initially booked himself to speak at two of Toronto’s private clubs in the middle of a busy election season?
How else was he supposed to reassure his corporate friends that he is not just a nominal federal finance minister?
As the economy took centre stage in the campaign last week Canadians were reminded of Oliver’s existence mostly because he cancelled an appearance at Toronto’s men-only Cambridge Club. Another speech scheduled for this week at the Albany club has been postponed until after the election.
With the markets in turmoil and amidst rampant speculation that Canada is in recession, it would be totally understandable that the contribution of the finance minister to the election conversation would be in such high demand that he would have little time left to for exclusive briefings.
Except that Oliver — having cleared his speaking agenda — then went to ground the better to let colleague Jason Kenney jump in the fray of the economic war of words.
In what amounts to a remarkable case of ministerial multi-tasking, it was the national defence minister who was dispatched to the media front Sunday to talk down the upcoming non-recession and the opposition’s views on the issue.
In a week when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had dominated the coverage with his embrace of deficits, Kenney seemed mostly preoccupied with the NDP’s still unreleased economic plan.
Thomas Mulcair has promised to finance his promises without running a budget deficit. The Conservatives, like the Liberals, are convinced that the NDP leader has a multi-billion-dollar hole at the heart of his platform.
In the absence of the actual NDP numbers — due to be released before mid-September — this is an argument that can only go around in circles.
But the frontal attack on the NDP — as delivered by one of Harper’s most political ministers — does mark a shift in Conservative strategy. It is the biggest signal to date that Harper and his brain trust no longer assume that New Democrat fortunes are, on balance, a positive development because they add up to a more divided non-conservative vote.
At the tail end of the 2011 campaign, the sheer prospect that the New Democrats might surf the Quebec orange wave to a minority victory nationally helped bring scores of centre-right voters to the Conservatives elsewhere in Canada.
In this campaign the NDP has led in almost every poll — sometimes by a significant margin — but there has been no attending scurry of spooked voters to Harper.
If anything, the opposite is happening with Trudeau’s party winning back some of the ground lost to the Conservatives on the Liberal right flank by Michael Ignatieff.
According to an Abacus poll published on Monday, the race has tightened and that is mostly because outside Quebec the Liberals have reversed their pre-campaign decline in support.
Trudeau may not be leading the pack — his polling numbers are in the same ballpark as Stéphane Dion’s election night results — but he is softening up the Conservatives for a possible kill in some regions of the country.
In British Columbia, where the Conservatives won 45 per cent of the vote and 21 seats four years ago, they are fighting for first place with the NDP.
Monday’s Abacus poll gave the Conservatives a one-point lead on the NDP in the province. But at 32 per cent, Harper’s party is 13 points off its 2011 election night score. The Liberals, meanwhile, are up seven points from four years ago.
Similarly, in Ontario, the Conservatives are 11 points below the level of support they achieved in the last election, while the Liberals are up by about as much.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, the NDP has built such a strong lead that Harper’s handful of incumbents could be in trouble. In Atlantic Canada, the Conservatives are running third across the region, far behind the first-place Liberals.
What a difference four years make.
In the last election, fear of a surging NDP helped the Conservatives win a majority. But the driving factor so far in this campaign is fear of the Conservatives and the vote splitting is happening on the right of the New Democrats.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer syndicated by the Toronto Star.