Beware the Bennett buggies

Can you win an election and still come out a loser? It is possible that the spoils of victory can turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

Can you win an election and still come out a loser?

It is possible that the spoils of victory can turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

R.B. Bennett walks with Senator Arthur Meighen. ((Canadian Press))

Ask R.B. Bennett. His Conservative Party won a majority in 1930, defeating the Liberals' Mackenzie King by taking 137 out of 233 seats, and 49 per cent of the popular vote.

But Canada in 1930 was staring into the teeth of the Great Depression. Bennett's policies to deal with the economic crisis may not have been the most enlightened.

But most historians agree that there was probably not a whole lot any Canadian prime minister could have done to lift Canada out of an economic hole that was devastating economies around the world.

Five years later, Bennett's Conservatives were thumped by King. By then, horse-drawn automobiles — Bennett buggies — were named after the autocratic Tory, becoming a symbol of the dire times. In 1935, the Tories lost 98 seats and 20 per cent of the vote total they had grabbed half a decade earlier.

Losing in 1930 was probably the best thing that could have happened to King. By 1935, the worst of the Depression was over, and King went on to serve another 13 years as prime minister.

Then there was Bob Rae

And how about the NDP's Bob Rae? He came out of nowhere to defeat Ontario's Liberal government in 1990, and found himself in the middle of the province's worst economic downturn since the 1930's. 

Indeed, it was widely speculated at the time that Liberal Premier David Peterson called the election, only three years into his mandate, because he knew the economic storm clouds were so ominous that his electoral prospects were bound to get worse.

The Bank of Canada's high dollar and high interest rate policies, and the fallout from the Free Trade agreement, combined to devastate the province's manufacturing sector.  Rae inherited a provincial deficit that already stood at about $3 billion. 

It didn't help that he tried to spend his way out of the recession, which led to a ballooning deficit and a crushing defeat in 1995, going from 74 seats to just 17. 

There is still considerable debate as to how much worse Rae's policies made the Ontario economy between 1990 and 1995.

But it was not going to be a smooth ride no matter who was in power, and Mike Harris' Conservatives became the beneficiaries of Rae's misfortune in the election of 1995.

Enter Stephen Harper

Which brings us to Stephen Harper and his newly minted minority government. We are not on the brink of another Great Depression, most economists agree. But the economic horizon looks very bleak indeed.

The U.S. bailout bill may have saved the banking system, and the stock market will continue its roller coaster ride.

But few experts believe that the U.S. will be able to escape a deep recession that will invariably blow back north of the border. With manufacturing in central Canada already on the ropes, and weakening demand for western-based commodities, the prospects for the Canadian economy are not bright. 

The danger for Harper is that his new mandate, however long it lasts, will be defined by a struggle against a global economic slowdown over which he has little control, not to mention a set of promises made on the campaign trail that may well come back to haunt him.

 During the campaign, none of the leaders seemed struck by the urgency of the impending economic decline.

There was, of course, a great deal of rhetoric offered up, but what was striking was that none of the parties felt compelled to revise their platforms to reflect the new economic realities. All of them continued to make promises based on economic projections that were clearly no longer viable.

Of all the leaders, Harper was most determined to stay the course.

"What leaders have to do is have a plan and not panic," he said. Revising the plan based on new data was considered to be a sign of panic, not prudence.

Harper, in the dying days of the campaign, proclaimed that he would not run a deficit, raise taxes or cut spending. That may be a difficult circle to square, and those words may come back to haunt him.

The lessons of history

The reality is that Harper's second term as prime minister will almost certainly be defined by his handling of an economic crisis not of his own making. What's more, his range of options to deal with that crisis is limited.

But history shows that voters can be very unforgiving when the economy tanks. They tend to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the man in charge, however unfair that may be.

As the leader of a minority Parliament, Harper may be spared the full force of public anger, but it's possible that our perspective on Tuesday night's results may look very different by the time Canadians next go to the polls.

But could this election be one where the winner loses, and the losers ultimately win?