Directly behind Justin Trudeau as he spoke at a packed Liberal rally in suburban Ottawa on Monday morning, nicely positioned for the cameras, was a supporter patiently holding up a sign that read, “For a strong middle class.”
Earlier in this marathon election race, that economically minded Liberal partisan wouldn’t have had to wait long for Trudeau to launch into his main pitch about cutting the rate on the middle income tax bracket, and paying for it by raising the rate on earnings over $200,000.
But, with a week to go before election day, the campaign’s core theme has changed. The pocketbook issues that seemed bound to define the choices voters face on Oct. 19 have been eclipsed by thornier questions of identity. It happened because Stephen Harper took his government’s already controversial position that niqabs shouldn’t be allowed during the swearing of the citizenship oath a long stride further, saying a re-elected Tory government would consider banning face coverings more broadly in the federal public service. As well, his government began, during the campaign, to use its new power, in effect only since May 29 under the Strengthening Citizenship Act, to try to strip the citizenship of dual nationals convicted of serious crimes against the country’s security, including terrorism.
So Trudeau, having surged to the front in recent polls, is now trying to seal the deal with Canadian voters, not by emphasizing his economic platform, but by hitting hard at Harper for taking, as Liberals see it, the low road. At the Monday rally in the new Nepean riding, in what has been a Tory-held suburban area, Trudeau suggested the emergence of the niqab and citizenship as key issues wasn’t so much an unforeseeable development as an extension of Harper’s long-established approach.
“Now, sustained over a long period of time, that kind of thing changes us,” Trudeau said. “In short, it makes us fearful of ideas and of others. And eventually what we get isn’t politics anymore. We don’t get discussion and we don’t get answers. All we get is anger.” He suggested traditional Tory voters who still retain an affection for the old Progressive Conservative party—as it existed back before the Reform split and then the reuniting of the right—don’t really belong in the Conservative party of today.
“We all know that Tories have a proud history of governments that tried to do what was best for Canada, not just micro-targeted parts of it,” Trudeau said. Without naming any particular past Conservative prime ministers, he said they “didn’t base everything on wedge politics.” Then he spelled out what he meant: “They didn’t divide Canadians over differences of religion or citizenship.”
He issued a direct appeal to moderate Conservatives who might switch to the Liberals this time, perhaps in Ontario, where dozens of seats currently held by Harper are now in play. Trudeau accused Harper of having “assumed a label and co-opted a political tradition,” while he “hollowed out its centre and replaced the heart with a divisive, secretive and fearful core.”
By the time Trudeau got around to reiterating his platform’s familiar pitch to the middle class—mainly that tax cut, along with an enriched and streamlined benefit for parents—those platform points seemed almost like an afterthought. (The guy with the “For a strong middle class” sign waved it gamely anyway.)
While Trudeau heads into the campaign’s final week slamming the way Conservatives have played identity politics, Harper evidently wants to shift the channel back to taxes and the economic growth. “The choice is fundamentally about the economy,” he said in a campaign stop in Kitchener, Ont., on Monday. “Do we want to keep growing the economy, keep creating jobs, keep delivering benefits to people that we can afford? That’s what we’re running on.” The Conservatives put out two new ads just before the Thanksgiving long weekend, one with the theme that Trudeau is “economically clueless.”
But raising the alarm over Trudeau’s economic management credentials could be difficult after the Conservatives have allowed, and sometimes encouraged, so much of the campaign’s energy to flow into those emotional arguments over the niqab and citizenship. And they are now fighting Liberal momentum. The latest Nanos Research tracking poll, completed for CTV News and the Globe and Mail on the holiday weekend and released yesterday, put the Liberals well in front at 35.7 per cent, the Tories second at 28.9 per cent, and Tom Mulcair’s NDP trailing at 24.3 per cent support.
Mulcair is also aiming to draw voters’ attentions to an economic file, although in his case, it’s NDP opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which Harper touts as a big win for Canada, and Trudeau speaks favourably about, although he says he needs to see the full text to be sure.
The Liberal leader hardly mentioned Mulcair in his Ottawa rally speech. Now the evident front-runner, Trudeau signalled at the outset of this final week of all-out campaigning that he’s going to be hammering Harper, no so much on his policies, as on his way of doing politics.