In Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s 2015 budget speech, he stuck with the same message the Conservatives have offered since the 2009 recession: Canada’s economy is a ship navigating through risky global waters.

Early in his speech on Tuesday, Oliver quoted Donald Fleming, who served as Progressive Conservative finance minister under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker from 1957-62.

“We have withstood the disturbing calm of recession, and the winds of prosperity again fill our sails,” Fleming said, according to Oliver.

“Mr. Speaker, our economy is now substantially larger than it was pre-recession, a performance that remains the envy of the G-7,” Oliver said.

“Amid the tumult, our country remains a beacon of economic stability and security built on a foundation of sound financial management,” he added.

Oliver returned to the ship theme at the end of his speech. “We have withstood the disturbing calm of recession, and the winds of prosperity again fill our sails,” he concluded.

The water metaphor goes back several years.

In the 2010 after the Speech from the Throne, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said “fortune is fickle,” and that “just as the rain falls on the good and the bad alike, so the floodwaters of recession have risen across the globe.”

Ever since then, including during the 2011 campaign when the Conservatives won a majority government, he and his ministers have repeated these ideas.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty built on the idea when he told the Canadian Club of Ottawa later that year that “the ship of state has had a difficult voyage, but we can see the harbour lights” and “a would-be captain and his ragtag crew are trying to storm the bridge.”

That “would-be captain” was then Liberal-leader Michael Ignatieff. The “rag-tag crew” was the Liberals’ potential coalition partners, the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, he explained. He reiterated the theme, including his last budget in 2014.

After Flaherty’s death, Joe Oliver took over as finance minister, and he took on the message. “In an all-too-volatile world and a world in which the global economy is fragile, there is no substitute for decisive action and hard work,” Oliver told the Economic Club of Canada last April.

The fragile economy has become such a go-to response that the Conservatives have uttered those two words together in parliamentary debates more than 600 times in the past six years. NDP MPs used the words about 120 times and the Liberals about 60, according to

Richard Johnston, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, says the reason voters hear that message consistently from the Conservatives is that they want Canadians to be thinking about who will be the best stewards of the economy when they cast their votes.

“There is this old metaphor of the ship of state and the notion that what governments do is navigate this ship in rough waters,” he explains. “In economic matters and national security, the ship of state metaphor does help governments of the right.”


“The government reckons that management of the economy is one of the high cards that they hold and they want as many voters as they can get to think of that question,” says Johnston, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation.

The Conservatives have that card, in part, simply because they position themselves on the political right, he says.

“There seems to be a kind of folk wisdom that the government that occupies the right of the spectrum is presumptively better at managing the economy,” he explains. The same is true in other countries, such as Australia and the U.S., and at the provincial level in Canada, he adds.

Johnston says that idea is so persistent that people continue to believe it even when facts suggest otherwise. For example, during the last election, the Conservative government successfully labelled the Liberals as risky potential economic stewards who would run up the debt -- even as Conservatives were running deficits and despite the fact that the previous Liberal governments had paid down the debt.

In essence, the Liberals have so much trouble convincing Canadians they’re better economic stewards that they need to offer voters something else, according to Johnston. “On the economy, they’re basically boxed in, so we’re left with foreign policy, cultural stuff, rule of law, respect for Parliament.”

The NDP, meanwhile, have a “permanent problem” selling themselves as good economic stewards, he says, “even though you can do a lot of stuff in the public sector and investors are not going to flee.”

So whether the Liberals or NDP can win the election will depend in large part on whether management of the economy continues to be top of mind for voters, says Johnston.

“Whether voters in the end decide that’s what this election should be about remains to be seen,” he says. “But that the Conservative party wants to make this what the election about is pretty clear.”