Spin Cycle: Is Stephen Harper's jobs record 'the worst since Great Depression'?

Poor R.B. Bennett. He grew up poor, became a millionaire with a successful law practice, became Canada's 15th prime minister less than a year into the Great Depression — and is now a punch-line in political stump speeches.

NDP and Liberals accuse Conservatives of having worst economic record in decades. What do the numbers say?

R.B. Bennett (left) was prime minister of Canada during The Great Depression, Stephen Harper (right) ran the government through the Great Recession of 2008-09. (CBC- CP - Archives Canada)

"Stephen Harper has had the worst growth rate of any prime minister since R.B. Bennett in the depths of the Great Depression and the worst record on job creation of any prime minister since World War II," — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, almost every day since the campaign started.

"Stephen Harper has the worst job creation record since the Second World War and the worst economic growth record since The Great Depression." — NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, almost every day since the campaign started.

Poor R.B. Bennett. He grew up impoverished, became a self-made millionaire through a successful law practice and rose through the political ranks to become Canada's 15th prime minister in October 1931, less than a year into the Great Depression. And now he is a punchline in political stump speeches.

Canada's labour force shrank in each of the first three years of Bennett's mandate, as did the overall economy.

The recovery in 1934 and 1935 meant there were slightly more jobs in the country when Bennett left compared to what he inherited, though GDP was still below 1930 levels.

The spin

The NDP and Liberals say Canada's 22nd prime minister, Stephen Harper, has the worst jobs and economic growth record of any of his predecessors since the days of Bennett.

What's more, while this election was billed as one about the economy, and while the Conservatives have been eager to talk about their record, they have more recently spent a lot of time stoking a debate around refugees, citizenship, niqabs, and "barbaric cultural practices."

And that is no coincidence, charge his rivals.

Harper "has the worst record on jobs creation since World War II," Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said on Thursday. "He knows how to distract with fear and division, and that is something, quite frankly, that Canadians across the country are quite tired of."

For his part, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accuses the Conservatives of using "weapons of mass deception" to avoid talking about the economy.

The counter-spin

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper does actually continue to talk about the economy.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, he remembers things differently.

The Conservative economic plan "brought us successfully through the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s," Harper says during his stump speech.

He points to 1.3-million "net new jobs," created since the "depths of the financial crisis."

Harper also says that "since that period, this country, Canada, has the best job creation record, the best growth and best income record of all of the major developed economies."

No coincidence

The fact both Mulcair and Trudeau are using very similar language around Harper's economic record is no accident — they are both citing the same study.

Unifor economist Jim Stanford and Jordan Brennan penned a report this summer that looked at economic data going back to 1946 — the final two years of Mackenzie King's time as prime minister and just after the end of the Second World War.

Stanford and Brennan chose the cut-off of 1946 in order to "try to exclude the impact of the unique demobilization of military and other government activities after the end of the war."

The economists dismissed the terms of John Turner, Joe Clark, and Kim Campbell with the logic that if they spent less than one full budget cycle (one year) in office, then we can't really judge their influence on the economy.

Of the remaining nine prime ministers studied, the authors averaged out all of the indicators on an annual basis so Pierre Trudeau's more than 15 years in office can be fairly compared to Paul Martin's 25 months in the job.

The report's conclusion: Harper comes dead-last in terms of job creation and GDP growth.

Statistics Canada does, however, have job and GDP numbers going back to 1921 — which brings in poor, old R.B. Bennett.

Over the lifetime of Bennett's government, after you smooth out the dip of the Great Depression and the spike of the ensuing recovery, the number of jobs in the country grew by an average of 0.46 per cent.

Harper has more than doubled that score — posting annual average job-growth of 1.1 per cent.

Alas, in the list of 10 prime ministers since and including Bennett, that is the second worst rate.

Bennett's economy shrank by an average of a little more than 2 per cent compared to 1.5 per cent annualized growth in Harper's time.

Much, much better, but — again — every prime minister between Bennett and Harper had a higher score on this.

The final rinse

All of that said, given that the financial crisis of 2008 was the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, wouldn't it make sense that the economic indicators around that period would also be the worst since Bennett's day?

And just as Canada had no influence over the events that led to Black Tuesday, which signalled the start of the Great Depression, our nation had no significant part in the mortgage and debt bubble that led to the financial collapse in 2008.

We, and our prime ministers, were just along for the ride down. 

What happens after a financial crisis is indeed influenced by what the government of the day does and is perhaps best viewed through the lens of how peer countries in similar situations come out the other side.

When it comes to Canada's track record among G7 partners, the results are debatable.

As we noted in an earlier Spin Cycle, Canada's unemployment rate in 2006, when Harper took over, stood at 6.3 per cent — fourth-best among the G7.

Today, the jobless rate stands at 7.1 per cent — sliding Canada to fifth place in the G7.


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