In the cost-of-living election, advantage goes to Tories

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If you’ve spent enough time on #cdnpoli Twitter, you’ve probably encountered multiple members of the group of outspoken public policy experts unofficially known as the Economist Party of Canada.  This group is characterized not only by its members’ deep knowledge of economics, statistics, and behavioural science, but by their frustration when Canada’s elected officials ignore all these in favour of political expediency.

This week, we learned that cost of living is expected to be a top priority in Election 2019, among younger voters in particular.  Citing this news, Rachel Curran, former and current aide to ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said on Twitter that “almost everyone has experienced” the feeling of being less able to afford the necessities of life.  EPC member Stephen Gordon of Laval University took issue with her contention, pointing out that those necessities are factored into the Consumer Price Index, which remained at two percent year-over-year last month.  This led to a spat over which indicators matter – if any of them matter to the electorate.

I never like to side with a career political operative over an economist, to say nothing of fellow Loonie Politics columnist Dale Smith, who went so far as to characterize Curran’s tweet as “StatsCan trutherism.”  But she has the right instincts on this one: If a plurality of Canadians feel like the basics are slipping out of their reach, no stats will convince them otherwise.  And nobody will get very far by telling them to look at the stats harder.  For that reason, the challenge before the contenders for the Prime Minister’s Office is this: “How can I make Canadians’ lives more affordable in a way they’ll actually notice?”

Finding an answer to this question will be more difficult for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has already had four years to make Canadians’ lives more affordable.  He has a number of accomplishments he can cite on the campaign trail, including an increased Canada Child Benefit and federal funds to help first-time homeowners cover their mortgages.  Unfortunately, those won’t help you if you’re not a parent, or if you can’t find a home selling for less than the $565,000 limit.  (GTA renters are laughing at that number.  Not in a funny way.  More like this.)

Anyone seeking to unseat Trudeau couldn’t ask for better conditions: the rising (or so it seems) expense of housing, utilities, food, and transportation, compounded with disillusionment with the Liberals for their own unforced errors.  It ought to be easy for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to present himself personally as an alternative to this.  He had a middle-class upbringing; he cannot fall back on his inheritance if his family’s circumstances change.  He keeps his private home in north Regina, not exactly a centre of wealth and privilege.  He has five children and no nanny; Trudeau has two fewer children and two more nannies, whose salaries come from taxpayers.  He courted his wife with dates at Boston Pizza.  He drives a minivan – did he mention he drives a minivan?  It’s easy to mock him for being so basic, but let’s not pretend basicness doesn’t have its upsides under the right circumstances.  The Tories like summing up their message with a pithy, three – to five-word phrase, so they can have this one for free: “Justin doesn’t get it.”

How much substantive help Scheer could offer as prime minister is a different question.  Housing and transportation are primarily the tasks of provinces and cities.  He’s absolutely adamant in his support for the system that keeps dairy, poultry, and eggs overpriced.  He’ll remove the GST from home heating bills, but that’s only five percentage points off the cost of one utility. He may restore some boutique tax credits that the Liberals cancelled, but those tend to benefit wealthier households more.  If Scheer wants to win on a message of relatability, he’ll have to hope that voters care more about his image than his ideas or his ability to turn them into action.

Luckily, as we’ve already covered, most voters think qualitatively, not quantitatively.  And so the EPC is destined to be disappointed yet again.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Jess Morgan.    Follow Jess Morgan on Twitter at @JessAMorgan89.

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