Deciphering Justin Trudeau -

Deciphering Justin Trudeau

Six takeaways from the Liberal convention

Justin Trudeau. (The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau. (The Canadian Press)

The Maclean’s Ottawa bureau—Paul Wells, John Geddes and Aaron Wherry—break down Justin Trudeau’s keynote address to the Liberal policy convention in Montreal.

What he said: “You know, people ask me all the time: what are the biggest differences between me, Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair. There are plenty. For starters, Mr. Mulcair has a better beard, and Mr. Harper lives in a bigger house. But mostly, I don’t want to practice politics in a way that turns Nathalie’s anxiety into resentment. Both of our opponents feel, for their own reasons, that the more frustrated Canadians get, the better they will do.”

What to make of what he said: The debate over “negative” politics quickly and easily gets silly, but here’s a neat and possibly crucial attempt to define and differentiate oneself. Basically: I’m a nice guy. It might be more than that in various ways, but it’s also, on a certain level, simply that. And it might not be a particularly ridiculous pitch to make. AW

What he said: “For me, everything starts with the core liberal ideas of freedom and opportunity. The idea that no matter where and to whom you were born, you start free, and should have a fair shot at success. Upward mobility should be a realistic prospect for everyone. If you remain hard-working and forward-thinking, you should be able to build a better life for yourself, and pass on even more opportunities to your kids.”

What to make of what he said: The notion that upward mobility is threatened in Canada, or already thing of the past, is controversial. The leading expert on the subject, University of Ottawa’s Miles Corak, argues that Canada ranks right up there with Denmark and Finland in terms of kids doing better than their parents, and far better than countries where it’s hard to climb the income ladder, like the U.S. and Britain. Still, Corak told me last fall that Canada’s solid social-mobility track record is in jeopardy; he worries Canadians born, say, a decade ago might find it tougher to do better than their parents. But that remains to be seen over the next two or three decades. For now, it’s a worry rather than a proven trend. JG

What he said: “And to wealthier Canadians, I say this: the growth we have seen over the past three decades has been the product of a broadly supported agenda. Investments in education, fiscal discipline, openness to trade. All of which the middle class voted for, repeatedly. Here’s the point: The original promise of that agenda was that everyone would share in the prosperity that it creates. It hasn’t happened. That’s not a political point. It’s a fact. And if we don’t fix that, the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda.”

What to make of what he said: This section of the speech is contentious in two ways. Firstly, it’s not clear Canada’s middle class hasn’t benefited from the policies Trudeau mentions. Take fiscal discipline. The watershed was the 1995-1998 Liberal deficit-cutting period. After that, the middle class benefited, for example, from broad-based tax cuts starting in 2000. And Laval University economist (and Maclean’s blogger) Stephen Gordon has highlighted how median incomes have risen since the government finances were brought under control in the mid-1990s.  Secondly, on middle-class despair over economic policies that supposedly haven’t delivered, the latest polls I’ve seen show, despite 2013 having been a disappointingly flat year for jobs and growth, surprisingly resilient optimism about the outlook. Ipsos-Reid found 30 per cent of Canadians confident at the start of 2014, five points better than at the same time last year. Frankly, it’s not clear why. Whatever the reason, those numbers are hardly a harbinger of middle-class revolt. JG

What he said: “We need to get education right. Since we know that 7 out of 10 jobs in the future are going to require post-secondary education, well, we ought to have a national target of 70% PSE attainment. Now, I’m a Quebec MP, and I’m well acquainted with Section 93 of the Constitution. I know education is a provincial responsibility. But there’s a lot the federal government can and must do to support provincial policy. We’ve heard young Liberals speak up for young people all across the country. They are telling us that they need help. They need help paying for school, help with their debts and mostly help getting a good start in the workforce.”

What to make of what he said: This was just about the only numerical target Trudeau set in a speech that had been billed, wrongly, as a substantive economic treatise. It may mean a lot — Statcan says that in 2012 53.6 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and over had some kind of post-secondary education. Or it may mean nearly nothing: PSE attainment for 25-to-44-year-olds is already nearly 70 per cent, and the rate for the whole population has been rising all by itself for years. PW

What he said: “I say this to the grassroots Conservatives out there, in communities across this country. Indeed, we might not agree all the time on everything … but I know we can always agree on this: Negativity cannot be this country’s lifeblood. It may be the way of the Conservative Party of Canada’s current leadership, but it is not the way of those Canadians who voted Conservative. “

What to make of what he said: Here, and for several paragraphs after, Trudeau attempts the difficult work of putting a wedge between Stephen Harper and Canadian conservatives. Conservatives have spent a decade exploiting Liberal uncertainty about the worth of their own leaders, to great effect because none of those leaders inspired confidence. Now Trudeau seeks to turn the table on Harper. It would have been a fool’s errand before the year Harper has just had. Now Harper has to worry about it. PW

What he said: “Liberals in British Columbia, my second home, are again challenging us to expand our idea of what it means to be a free citizen in a modern democracy. This time, they want us to reflect on giving terminally afflicted Canadians the choice to end their pain and suffering, and plan their own death with dignity.”

What to make of what he said: For a second there I thought he was actually going to take a stance on one of the most complicated and fraught matters of public policy imaginably. No such luck. But it was interesting that he would even acknowledge the issue—to be voted on by Liberal delegates tomorrow—and it will now be interesting to see whether, if the party embraces the issue, the leader is willing to take it on. He (and the party) have already shown some desire to be bold (marijuana legalization). AW