Trudeau's Montréal speech is slick, hints at the policy in play

John Geddes on the choices the Liberals have to make

(Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press)

(Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press)

Even the second time around, it was a pretty good speech.

Listening to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau this evening as he gave the crowd at the opening night of his party’s convention in Montréal exactly what they’d come for, it was impossible not to be impressed by his ability to get the job done from behind a podium—even though I’d heard, along with a bunch of other reporters, his relaxed run-though of the text a few hours earlier, when it was accidentally piped into a media room.

In fact, having heard his practice session, the impact of the real performance in front of a real audience was perhaps even a bit more telling. One of the skills a politician must master, especially come election time, is injecting a little freshness into familiar lines. And Trudeau simulates spontaneity with the best of them.

None of this, of course, is a surprise. If he’s proven one thing by the way he handily won the Liberal leadership and then, more remarkably, sustained his strong standing in the polls since then, it’s that he can execute the stage-craft part of the job. The questions revolve around putting some substance behind the scintillation.

There wasn’t much of that this evening; more is expected in his second speech to the convention on Saturday. But even that won’t be a platform talk: Trudeau and his team have repeatedly said they won’t be fleshing out policy until close to a 2015 election. Still, there were scattered references in tonight’s speech to themes that must come into focus for him to gain credibility.

The most important question is what policy ideas Trudeau settles on to make good his oft-repeated promise to focus on the supposedly stagnant Canadian middle class. “People haven’t had a real raise in 30 years, while inequality has increased and household debt has exploded,” he said this evening.

Leave aside for a moment the very legitimate debate about whether that dour picture of middle-income malaise is entirely accurate. Assuming it’s close enough to reality, what’s to be done about it? In his sketchbook economics lesson earlier this week, Trudeau suggested a key point is how indebted families (and, for that matter, provinces) can’t afford to spend much, but soon-to-be-in-surplus Ottawa can.

Some economists, including Stephen Gordon here, raised worries that Trudeau was signalling a belief in government stimulus even at a time of economic growth. But maybe Trudeau was suggesting, not straight-up stimulus spending, but something like a push to ensure access to opportunity. Typically, that sort of messaging means education above all else.

“Canadians are tired of the politics of fear and division,” Trudeau said near the end, emphasizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ornery streak. “But they don’t just want a different government. They want a better government. They want a government that is focused on making sure each and every Canadian has a real and fair chance at success.”

It’s hard to know how to interpret such bromides. But to my ear there’s a difference between saying it’s the government’s job to directly take up the spending slack if middle-class consumers tighten their belts, and suggesting it’s government’s job to make sure opportunity isn’t denied anyone, even in a tough, competitive economy.

On the policy front, the Liberals have some choices to make. We’ll see if this weekend gives us a sense of which way they’re leaning.