National Newswatch

TORONTO — Stephen Harper dodged two direct questions Friday on whether the hobbled economy had slipped into recession, a dance that came only hours after he appeared to acknowledge Canada had indeed taken such a turn for the worse.

In Thursday’s leaders’ debate, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair pressed Harper on the fact government data has revealed the economy shrank over the first five months of the year. 

Mulcair noted the grim numbers left Canada one month shy of a technical definition of a recession, then added, “But according to a lot of observers, we’re already in a recession.”

Harper was quick to respond with: “Mr. Mulcair, I’m not denying that.”

When asked twice by reporters Friday if he believed the country had indeed already tumbled into a recession, the Conservative leader ducked both times, falling back on his already-used talking points.

“We have a contraction in the energy sector that everybody knows is because of low oil prices,” Harper said during a campaign stop in the backyard of a family home in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill.

“We know there are ups and downs. The choice is you either stick with the plan that’s working and has most of our economy growing, or you adopt plans that throw all of the economy backwards — and that’s what the NDP proposes.”

Conservative officials said Friday that Harper’s “not denying” remark was in response to the economic data cited by Mulcair, and had nothing to do with the NDP leader’s comment about already being in a recession.

Mulcair saw it a little differently.

“As they taught us in law school, an admission is the best form of evidence,” he said Thursday night after the debate was over. And on Friday: “Mr. Harper finally admitted it: we are in a second recession.”

Experts and politicians have been debating for weeks whether the economy has been in recession, in large part due to the steep slide in oil prices. During a news conference last month, Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz refused to even utter the word.

Poloz had just cut the bank’s trend-setting interest rate for the second time in 2015 to help the economy handle the oil-price shock. He was asked whether downturn meant the economy had been suffering the effects of a recession.

“I’m not going to engage in a debate about what we call this,” Poloz said. “There’s no doubt we have worked our way through a mild contraction.”

On Friday, Harper was flanked by moms and toddlers on a backyard deck. He used the suburban backdrop to promote the newly enriched universal child care benefit introduced by his government.

He has argued the cash injection back into families’ pockets would help fire up the sluggish economy.

As for his performance in Thursday’s debate, Harper would only say that he “felt very good” about it.

“I’ll leave it to the pundits to do their own analysis.”

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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