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Both Harper and opposition sell fear under darkening economic skies

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Many markets thrive on a dynamic contest between fear and hope. For every stock seller who fears an imminent setback, there is a buyer who sees an upside. Home sellers worry about selling too low while buyers fear overpaying.

So it is in politics, where normally, incumbents thrive on confidence about the future, and opposition parties gather strength when fear takes over. But there's something different today.

Global economic news has us feeling like we've been on a seesaw for years already. A little bit of good news, followed by the inevitable bad. Collapsing investment banks, bankrupt automakers, the unraveling of the U.S. housing market, the peril faced by Greece and other debt-aholic countries – hardly a day goes by without a headache somewhere.

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You would think all of this is pretty fertile ground for political challengers. In the United States, that's more and more apparent. While many voters are unhappy with the lineup of Republicans on offer for the presidency, more are wondering whether Barack Obama has what it takes.

Here in Canada, it's as though we are watching a different movie. As disturbing as all those international events have been, rather than make Canadians crave a change in political direction, they seem to be making us hesitant about change. We worry about creating more uncertainty and volatility, when we mostly just want things to calm down.

As we watch events unfold in the House of Commons right now, there is a curious situation emerging: All sides are selling fear.

In answer to almost any question about the economy, the Prime Minister and his ministers are at pains to tell Canadians how the perilous state of the global economy keeps them up at night. There's not a lot of hope in their message: They talk about how employment is up since the onset of the recession, but in reality it's a "let's ensure we don't get hurt too badly" theme. This is an unusual thing for incumbents to do – but for the moment anyway, it's sensible strategy.

The opposition parties are also focused on fear, not surprisingly. There's a difference of course: They are focused on how much worse things will get if Ottawa doesn't do something. This would be a stronger political footing if news from the rest of the world didn't get it its way. Canadian economic troubles are routinely drowned out by far more shocking situations, in so many other places.

It would also work better if there were any kind of public consensus about what exactly would help. But there isn't. Spending more public money looks like it's hurting every country that has tried it.

For now, anyway, the "doing the best we can to battle global headwinds" positioning of the Conservatives will resonate with, if not rally or warm the hearts of, Canadian voters. In effect, if there is no market between fear and hope, voters will create a different lens: avoiding what might increase turmoil and gravitating toward choices that seem to promise more calm.

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All of this might change, of course, if conditions deteriorate sharply. If despair grows, this will eventually create a demand some sort of plan of new action. There's no sign in public opinion that things have reached that point.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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