OTTAWA (Reuters) - It’s not every day you get slapped down on live television by the leader of a major industrialized nation, but these are unusual times.
A month ago, at a news conference to mark the start of Canada’s election campaign, I asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper why he was so sure he could keep the budget in surplus.
The ailing U.S. economy was headed for much bigger trouble, I said. And given that the United States swallows 75 percent of all Canadian exports, this was surely bad news for Ottawa.
Harper, an economist by trade, looked at me sternly.
“First of all I would just call on everybody to engage in analysis more sober than that,” he said to snickers from the audience.
It was unlikely there would be a U.S. crash or recession so everyone should remain calm, he added.
Then the real meltdown started: we all found ourselves thrust into an increasingly surreal world, one far removed from the three previous Canadian campaigns I had covered.
It did not matter what Harper said about his Conservative Party’s policies ahead of the October 14 vote -- all anyone wanted to hear about was the economy. And it soon became clear that the prime minister and his team were scrambling to keep up.
At one news conference, he assured us all would be well. Minutes later, he told a television interviewer that the government would be taking unspecified additional steps.
A top aide said this referred to special Bank of Canada powers. “But he talked about the government,” I said.
“Yes, these are steps we will be taking -- the government, the Bank of Canada,” he replied in words unlikely to please the Bank, which has an arm’s-length relationship with Ottawa.
A colleague asked whether this meant the Bank would cut its key interest rate. No, said the aide.
The Bank cut the rate the next morning, along with much of the rest of the world. Canada’s main domestic banks refused to pass on the whole cut to clients and we wanted a reaction from Ottawa.
Bizarrely, the person they sent out to brief us was the minister responsible for the 2010 Winter Olympics, a thoroughly pleasant man with no known banking expertise.
“We support what the banks have done,” he announced.
“You support the banks?” we asked in bewilderment.
After a few bemused exchanges it dawned on us that he was talking about the central banks’ coordinated rate cut. He was then whisked away before he could do any more damage.
AN ELEVATOR HEADED DOWNWARD
As the markets continued to sink, Harper said now was a good time to buy shares -- comments which prompted derision and disbelief. Did the prime minister really not have anything better to do than stock picking?
Markets normally listen to G7 leaders, but not this time. No matter what buttons Harper pressed, the elevator was still headed straight for the basement.
Policies appeared from nowhere.
Harper insisted the country’s banks were just fine, and then abruptly announced Ottawa would buy up insured mortgages to ease the growing credit freeze.
The questions became more pointed as Harper, a reserved man who always uses a teleprompter, declined to show much emotion about the market mayhem.
“Is your coldness putting off people?” asked one reporter, a question that would have been unthinkable not long ago.
The atmosphere started to turn nasty. Harper held his news conferences in front of supporters, who booed questions questioning how he was handling the crisis.
“Go back to Russia!” shouted an irate man at one point. That’s odd, I thought -- in my five years as a Moscow reporter, I was never booed or screamed at during a news conference.
Yet polls showed Canadians were indeed unimpressed with what they saw as Harper’s lack of empathy for their plight.
So Harper decided that showing concern had to be the order of the day, even if this meant virtually ignoring what would otherwise have been great news.
Last Friday the latest employment statistics came out and they were the opposite of what you would expect: the number of jobs increased by 109,000.
Even in good times this would have warranted a flurry of news releases. In a tough era, it called for a triumphant media appearance and -- why not -- a marching band.
Instead, Harper was almost apologetic about the news.
“In September alone . . . our economy created over 100,000 new jobs. Still, many Canadian families are still concerned. I understand those concerns too,” he said in a flat little speech to supporters. So much for the fantastic job figures.
Barely had I stopped shaking my head at the oddness of this spectacle than I heard Harper say that “the Conservative plan, my friends, is a recipe to avoid recession.”
I wasn’t close enough to point out that if the rest of the world went into recession, no plan would save Canada.
The Canadian dollar dropped no less than five cents in just a few hours that day. A development that would normally have triggered hysterical excitement passed by almost unnoticed. A person can only process so many shocks.
Polls on Saturday showed Harper’s Conservatives would win the election, but still have a minority of seats in parliament.
Meanwhile, the campaign was ending as it started. Last Saturday, a reporter asked Harper on live TV which spending programs he would have to cut to prevent a budget deficit. This he dismissed as a “ridiculous hypothetical scenario.”
Editing by Frances Kerry and Sara Ledwith
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