Liberals talk of economy, hint at a big-ticket vision

John Geddes on the makings of an ambitious, and potentially expensive, Liberal platform

Tuesday afternoon the Liberals staged an online chat, with Leader Justin Trudeau, MP Scott Brison, the party’s finance critic, and Chrystia Freeland, the former business journalist who’s newly chosen as the party’s star nominee for the upcoming by-election in Toronto Centre, all answering questions from the digital public.

This came a few hours after Trudeau, answering questions from reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons, swatted back one about why he doesn’t present more precise economic policy ideas, saying he needs time to “consult with Canadians” in devising at platform for the 2015 election.

With that in mind, nobody could expect fully formed platform points in the live-streamed event. Still, listening in with interest, I heard a whole bunch of potentially big-ticket ideas, coming mainly from Brison and Freeland, and, to a lesser degree, from Trudeau himself.

Some amounted to niche proposals, like Brison calling for the federal government to provide more summer work for students. (The government has claimed that it created 36,000 summer jobs in 2013,  plus 5,000 paid internships, and overall spends $300 million a year on youth employment.) Also on the subject of youth, Brison suggested somehow helping 20-somethings buy family businesses as they come up for sale.

Other points hit closer to core Conservative policy. For instance, Trudeau grew quite heated vowing, if he wins an election, to completely scrap the Conservatives’ 2012 Unemployment Insurance reforms, which you might remember required frequent EI recipients to show they’re actually searching for jobs, and asked seasonal workers to take jobs they’re qualified to fill within 100 km of where they live, if the pay is at least 70 per cent of what they last earned.

All three of Trudeau, Freeland and Brison expressed support, in general terms, for a national daycare and early childhood education program of some sort. And they agree Ottawa should help municipalities more with upgrading infrastructure, presumably well above the $53-billion, 10-year contribution Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced in his last budget.

Brison also suggested the federal government partner with provinces to modernize electrical grids, and invest in mining infrastructure. Freeland pointedly called for a strategy of fostering Canada’s high-technology sectors by spending more on university research, citing California’s ultra-innovative Silicon Valley as the product of patient investment in university-incubated brainpower.

There were other areas where the trio seemed excited—such as promoting entrepreneurship and tapping the Idle No More movement for ideas—but I didn’t hear anything around these topics that I’d call even the beginnings of a policy idea. I guess we can look for that in the future.

Overall, though, the session sketched the makings of an ambitious, and potentially expensive, Liberal platform: reverse EI reforms, reinstate national daycare of some sort, spend more on infrastructure, spend more on university research. Modernize electrical grids and mining infrastructure. Pay for more summer jobs for students.

The next election is a couple of years off. It’s not unreasonable for Trudeau to ask for time to talk and listen before he firms up his platform—and costs it out. In the meantime, though, anyone with a serious interest in public policy will inevitably begin thinking that if these three mean what they say, it’s all going to add up.

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