JOHN IBBITSON

Trudeau promises new deal for middle class Canadians

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Justin Trudeau celebrates his Liberal leadership victory with his wife, Sophie Grégoire. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Justin Trudeau declared Sunday that he will defeat Stephen Harper by appealing to the economic insecurities of the middle class.

He will seek to persuade those millions who currently see the Conservatives as good stewards of the economy that Mr. Harper has, in fact, abandoned them, that he has become indifferent to them.

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Mr. Trudeau has two years to win over worried middle-income Canadians that he can make their lives better in ways the Conservatives can’t. Pollster Nik Nanos suspects it will be a tough sell.

“Canadians are generally skeptical of politicians who promise transformative change,” he said Sunday. Mr. Trudeau, he added “must be very careful not to overreach.”

In accepting the Liberal leadership, Sunday night, Mr. Trudeau promised a politics with “more humanity, more transparency, more compassion.”

He had greater substance to offer in an essay written for The Globe that appears on the op-ed page of Monday’s paper.

In that essay, Mr. Trudeau questioned the economic orthodoxies that “openness to trade, fiscal discipline, tax competitiveness, investment in skills, research and infrastructure,” would lead to rising incomes for the middle class. Those incomes, he said, had failed to keep pace with overall economic growth.

“National business leaders and other wealthy Canadians should draw the following conclusion, and do so urgently,” he advised. “If we do not solve this problem, Canadians will eventually withdraw their support for a growth agenda.”

He added that “I do not have all the answers required to solve this problem,” and promised to “engage Canadians broadly about how to address this central problem of our time.”

Mr. Trudeau’s promise of a new deal for the middle class will soon be tested. The government is expected to unveil within a matter of weeks a proposed free-trade agreement with the European Union. Senior Liberals, speaking off the record, predict the new Liberal Leader will support it, and support also a proposed pipeline that would ship oil east from Alberta to the Atlantic. (Though the Liberals oppose the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline west to the Pacific.)

The Conservatives will not be passive while Mr. Trudeau deliberates. Within moments of the announcement declaring Mr. Trudeau the victor, Fred DeLorey, a spokesman for the Conservative Party of Canada, sent an e-mail that ended: “Justin Trudeau may have a famous last name, but in a time of global economic uncertainty, he doesn’t have the judgment or experience to be Prime Minister.”

More substantially, Mr. Harper has for seven years cut taxes, loosened regulations, sought new trade agreements, and won plaudits around the world for sound fiscal management. Mr. Trudeau will run on hope and change; Mr. Harper will run on his record.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will doubtless declare that Mr. Trudeau is just Harper Light on the economy, and NDP Light on social issues.

“The NDP is going to form government in 2015,” he said Sunday at the conclusion of the party’s policy convention in Montreal. “The way we’re going to do it is to reach out beyond our traditional base and talk to progressives across the country and make them realize that only one result is possible if we want to get rid of Stephen Harper. The only party that can replace him is the NDP.”

Mr. Trudeau must also confront the truth that he has inherited a very weak hand –something the leader of the third party will be reminded of Monday, when he cools his heels while Mr. Mulcair, as Leader of the Official Opposition, opens Question Period.

More substantially, the Liberals have alienated vast swathes of the nation: the French in Quebec, Westerners, and those very suburban middle-class voters that Mr. Trudeau vowed in the essay to “begin, spend, and end every day thinking about and working hard” for.

Mr. Nanos pointed out that, institutionally, the Liberals will remain the third party in Parliament for the next two years and will still be limited in Question Period and profile in the House of Commons.

The real task, the pollster advised, “is to organize and fund raise.” Whether the Liberals can match the Conservatives in terms of a campaign war chest in the next election may matter as much as any policy pronouncement, he added. The good news, based on Mr. Trudeau’s impressive fundraising during the leadership campaign, “is that could be achievable.”

It would be beyond unusual for a rookie leader – practically a rookie politician – to vault the Liberals from third place into government in only two years. The attacks from the left and the right will be relentless. Both of his opponents are smart, seasoned veterans.

But Justin Trudeau appears to have this remarkable ability to connect with voters, an ability that has always eluded Mr. Harper and that appears to elude Mr. Mulcair.

The question now is what he will do with that gift and how far it will take him.

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