Finance Minister’s Local Battle Shows Harper’s Hurdle in Canada

How precarious has Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s advantage on Canada’s economy become? His opponents are taking him square on in a wealthy district held by his own finance minister.

Harper’s rivals ratcheted up their attacks on his economic record this week after figures showed the country was in a technical recession. They say the incumbent Conservative prime minister has given tax breaks to the wealthy and failed to stoke growth amid falling oil prices and a lower dollar.

The economic critique that follows Harper on his national tour can be seen, writ small, in Joe Oliver’s backyard.

“What I’ve heard repeatedly at the door is two things,” said Liberal candidate Marco Mendicino, 42, one of the 75-year-old finance minister’s challengers. “One, Canadians are hurting. And two, Mr. Harper and Mr. Oliver remain in a complete state of denial about the weak state of the economy.”

Canada’s election campaign is an unprecedented three-way race, with polls showing the incumbent Conservatives behind the left-leaning New Democratic Party and ahead of the centrist Liberals. Oliver himself faces stiff competition locally and is running largely out of the public eye -- canceling appearances and not speaking to the press.

Oliver’s constituents, however, tell his district’s story.

Steve Catleugh’s family hat shop has survived nearly 80 years in Toronto, down the road from Oliver’s campaign office. The Hatter is now on the ropes as its rent rises, the dollar falls and after its Canadian manufacturer closed.

Business Woes

“We’re struggling here to survive,” Catleugh, 58, said. “They say we’re slipping back into a recession. I could have told you that months ago.”

The shop used to buy its hats domestically. When its supplier closed, it began importing them, and doing so has become more expensive as the Canadian dollar weakens. Catleugh links the challenges facing his shop with the decline in manufacturing. He lost his own job at a Toronto-area window maker six years ago.

“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing and it’s killing us,” he said. “I can’t keep raising the price of these hats to cover the cost of the exchange rate.”

Luxury cars and stately homes line the side streets of Oliver’s district of Eglinton Lawrence, located just north of Toronto’s downtown core. The economy of Canada’s largest city has fared relatively well of late, adding 130,000 jobs over the past year. And yet Oliver is facing a rare challenge. Only six incumbent finance ministers have lost re-election bids in Canada’s history, most recently in 1993 and 1957.

Opposition Challengers

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau backed one of Oliver’s former Conservative colleagues, Eve Adams, who switched parties and began attacking the finance minister on the economy. She then lost the nomination to Mendicino, a prosecutor who has continued that line of attack.

Oliver won the district in 2011 from the Liberals, who had held it previously for two decades. They’re making a push again -- as are the New Democrats, who have recruited Andrew Thomson, a former provincial finance minister.

Thomson, 48, who the NDP hails for balancing budgets in Saskatchewan, is also attacking Oliver on the Conservative government’s economic record and string of seven consecutive deficits. Thomson has stressed his party’s pledge to balance the budget, support small business and fund manufacturing in hopes of reinvigorating a sector that once drove Ontario’s economy.

“I think this election is a question of what kind of Canada people want,” he said in an interview. “It’s not just a debate about how to get rid of Stephen Harper. It’s a question of what, in fact, we do after that.”

Wealthy District

Eglinton Lawrence is home to 113,000 people and has an average family income of C$165,000 ($125,000), 75 percent higher than the national average. More than one third of its residents speak a first language other than French or English, according to census data.

A recent Environics poll in the district put the Conservatives at 33 percent, the Liberals at 32 percent and the NDP at 23 percent, with a margin of error of four percentage points. The survey was commissioned by LeadNow, an advocacy group aiming to unseat Harper.

Oliver’s office referred requests for an interview to the Conservative Party. Spokesman Stephen Lecce said the finance minister had no plans to do interviews over the 79-day campaign. He’s also canceled appearances not open to the media, including one at a private men’s club in Toronto’s financial district, where he was to deliver an economic update.

‘Missing in Action’

“Joe, where are you? We’re starting to worry about you,” Thomson told reporters in Ottawa Tuesday after Statistics Canada announced gross domestic product declined for a second straight quarter. “I do think it’s interesting the finance minister is missing in action on this file.”

Oliver is not without support, however. His team said it had distributed 1,400 signs by the campaign’s third day, when Harper held an event with his finance minister at a local tile manufacturer. While there, in a district where real-estate listings routinely exceed C$1 million, they announced a home-renovation tax credit.

Around Catleugh’s shop, some listings top C$2 million. Despite the real-estate surge, small business owners like him say foot traffic is down and the economy is stumbling. To Mendicino, those local challenges epitomize the economic woes facing the whole country.

“If you talk to the small- and medium-size businesses, they are hurting,” the Liberal candidate said. “And I think that is reflective of some of the most objective measurables nationally.”