politics

Justin Trudeau: Why it’s vital we support the middle class

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Justin Trudeau speaks at the federal Liberal leadership showcase in Toronto on April 6, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

The last seven months have been terrific. I have met, spoken with, and learned from thousands of Canadians. There is nothing more invigorating and inspiring than to get out of the Ottawa bubble and spend time with the remarkable people who share this country.

I’ve learned that we Canadians retain our characteristically hopeful mix of values: optimism, openness, generosity of spirit, compassion and community service. However, anxiety is growing among the many millions of middle-class Canadians that progress – the core ideal that gave rise to and sustains those values – is under very real threat. For the first time, Canadians doubt whether they will leave a country to their children that is better than the one they inherited from their parents.

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Some conclude that a struggling middle class is a fact of life to which we should grow accustomed. They reason that it is part of a greater global adjustment, within which we Canadians are bit players, consigned to the receiving end of larger forces beyond our control.

Still others see economic performance, in macro terms like GDP growth, and conclude that there is no problem at all. Well, if you are among those few who have thrived, here is why you should care about the diminished fortunes of the middle class. The past 30 years’ growth has been the product of a broadly supported economic agenda. Governments of all political stripes have been elected and re-elected, here in Canada and abroad, on a similar economic platform: openness to trade, fiscal discipline, tax competitiveness and investment in skills, research and infrastructure.

Middle-class Canadians supported this agenda because, they were promised, it would create shared prosperity. The basic bargain was that growth was good for them, and they would share fairly in its fruits. That simply hasn’t happened. This is not a political argument, but a fact. While the economy has more than doubled in size in the past 30 years, middle-class incomes have gone up just 13 per cent. The only indicator that has grown apace with GDP for the middle class is household debt.

National business leaders and other wealthy Canadians should draw the following conclusion, and do so urgently: If we do not solve this problem, Canadians will eventually withdraw their support for a growth agenda. We will all be worse off as a consequence.

Canadians who struggle with lower incomes have an equal if not greater stake in the health of the middle class. Core to the Canadian promise is that upward mobility is a realistic prospect for all. Now, Canadians feel it is more likely that they will fall out of the middle class into poverty, rather than rise out of poverty into the middle class. This anxiety is borne out in key indicators like the 31-per-cent rise in food-bank usage we have seen since 2008.

As middle-class Canadians grow more anxious about their economic prospects, it becomes harder to solve every other problem. We already see this dynamic taking shape, as our politics have become more polarized in recent years. Deepening anxiety yields deepening divisions in every society, and we are not immune to that vicious cycle here in Canada. We will begin to vote for leaders who offer comforting stories about who to blame for our problems, rather than how to solve them.

That’s why I said last night in Ottawa that under my leadership, the Liberal Party of Canada’s purpose will be to enhance the prospects of middle-class Canadians. I will begin, spend, and end every day thinking about and working hard to solve this problem.

I have already presented several ideas that would positively contribute. I have proposed a new, national focus on education. Specifically, I have argued that we should have an ambitious target that would lift our postsecondary education attainment rate from 50 per cent to 70 per cent. In plain terms, we should work together to produce the work force that we know the future will require.

I also proposed that we should be both more open to – and strategic about – foreign direct investment and trade. We know that jobs in competitive, traded sectors pay higher wages. We enjoy preferential access to the U.S. market and historical familial ties to Europe. We have a window of opportunity with the great growing economies of Asia, wherein they need our resources and expertise as much as we need access to their manufactured goods and their markets.

I have spoken about immigration’s central role in our economy, about how we need to foster and maintain a system that creates citizens and community builders, not just employees.

I have also been upfront in declaring that I do not have all the answers required to solve this problem. No one person does, in Canada or anywhere else in the developed world. Indeed, Canadians should be deeply suspicious of any political leader who claims to have all the answers. Those remedies are bound to be simplistic and wrong. The contours and magnitude of this challenge are only now becoming apparent to policymakers everywhere. The quality of our response to it will in large part define our success as societies, and our generation’s place in the history books.

While I may not have all the answers, I am certain that, together, we Canadians do. I am, by inclination and profession, a teacher. I believe that seemingly insurmountable problems can be solved if they are understood clearly, dealt with openly, and tackled directly.

So I will engage Canadians broadly about how to address this central problem of our time. I am confident that business and labour, think tanks and universities, and yes, individual Canadian citizens, will take up this cause. I am equally confident that, together, we will develop and implement an effective, progressive and fair program that will breathe new life into the Canadian promise.

We will succeed because we must. In the end, it is the very idea of progress that is at stake.

Justin Trudeau is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

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