Major speeches by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau today served up an intriguing contrast. Mulcair sought to soothe anyone worried about the sort of economic change an NDP government might bring. Trudeau tried to reignite interest, especially among progressive voters whose enthusiasm for him might be waning, by promising Liberals would usher in big change in Canadian democracy.
The two men vying to be seen as the most viable alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper clearly face different challenges. Mulcair is on the rise in the polls, and his aim—as he delivered an economic policy speech in Toronto at the Economic Club of Canada—seemed to be to forestall a worried reaction to his emergence as a serious challenger.
But Trudeau has slipped in recent months, after a long stretch leading the polls, creating what’s shaping up as a tight three-way race with Harper’s Conservatives and Mulcair’s NDP. His goal in a speech to assembled Parliament Hill reporters at Ottawa’s Château Laurier was to reignite interest in his leadership with at least one promise that can’t be ignored.
And both took the opportunity to shore up their policy messages with a little personal narrative, the sort that modern political strategists view as essential to connecting with voters.
Here’s a look at contrasting key moments from the two speeches.
The policy message
Trudeau’s speech framed proposals on everything from reforming the Senate and the House, to letting federal scientists speak freely, to improving access to government information. His biggest new pledge, however, was to find something new to replace Canada’s first-past-the-post election system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins the seat, no matter how many votes other contenders draw:
“We need to know that, when we cast a ballot, it counts, that when we vote, it matters. So I’m proposing that we make every vote count. We are committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post. As part of a national engagement process, we will ensure that electoral-reform measures—such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting—are fully and fairly studied and considered.”
Mulcair repeatedly portrayed the NDP as open to investment, preoccupied with business success, and committed to government spending control—anything but a social-democratic threat to the stable economic order. He touted support for the manufacturing sector. But the platform plank he seems to think is most likely to reassure anyone anxious about his party’s economic bent is a small-business tax break:
“To compete and win, Canada needs a strong and thriving middle class. A stronger middle class means a stronger Canada . . . We have to provide immediate and permanent help to some of the hardest-working job creators in our economy, Canada’s small-business owners, the backbone of local communities and the creators of 80 per cent of all new jobs in this great country of ours. That’s why my plan starts by cutting the small-business tax rate from 11 per cent to nine per cent, a near 20 per cent reduction.”
The personal narrative
There can be no doubt that early enthusiasm for Trudeau’s leadership of the Liberal Party was jump-started by nostalgia in some quarters for his father’s long tenure as prime minister. Justin Trudeau hasn’t shied from invoking Pierre Trudeau’s name. Today, he did it for a precise tactical reason, asserting that Harper’s politics is less civil, perhaps even less civilized, than the style of his father’s time:
“It wasn’t like that before. I know that from experience. All I have to do is think back to my own father. As prime minister, he could be tough, even hard-nosed. I’ll tell you a secret: He didn’t actually just say ‘fuddle duddle.’ But to use an example from my father’s day, ministers didn’t attack Supreme Court justices, just to raise money and whip up support. That would have been unthinkable. Under Stephen Harper, it’s just another day at the office.”
Unlike Trudeau, Mulcair arrived as leader of a federal party with no famous personal story to fix his persona in the Canadian public’s imagination. Starting early this year, his strategists urged him to make it a habit to tell a bit of his family story every time he speaks. Today was no exception. And it’s no coincidence that the capsule version Mulcair offers contrasts sharply with Trudeau’s story, both in terms of Mulcair’s unglamorous upbringing and his resumé of Quebec experience.
“My beliefs and values stem from my upbringing. My family story is that of millions of Canadian families. Growing up the second-oldest of 10 kids, we had to work for everything we had. It wasn’t easy. We worked hard, played by the rules and lived within our means. We learned the importance of looking out for one another, sticking together during good times and bad. These are the values that guided me throughout my 35 years of public life, and my time as a cabinet minister in the government of Quebec.”
So there is the contrast: Trudeau emphasizing big change in how Canadians elect governments, Mulcair calmly stressing support for the private sector; Trudeau tactically playing off his storied political name, Mulcair mythologizing his big-family, middle-class background. Both took aim at Harper today, too. But, as a tight three-way race to the Oct. 19 election picks up steam, jostling between the opposition parties is growing at least as interesting as their assaults on the party in power.