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As convention nears, the real Justin Trudeau needs to stand up

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pauses after asking a question in the House of Commons on Nov. 26, 2013.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

This is the week where a low-definition Justin Trudeau must start providing a sharper image for his leadership, before his opponents do.

The Liberal Leader's general lack of political positions has worked in his favour for 10 months because his persona carried him through a long honeymoon.

Now he heads into his first party convention since he became leader last April, and he has to start answering the question of what Justin Trudeau is, rather than just who.

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That's why he's starting to etch out an economic direction, in broad terms, before the convention starts Thursday.

His interview with The Globe and Mail, published Saturday, didn't spell out a fiscal platform, but it staked out ground: Mr. Trudeau indicated that he'd take a more interventionist approach, spending more on infrastructure and skills-training to try to foster growth, rather than seeing deficit-reduction as the government's primary goal.

It's significant, too, that the spending he focused on aren't social programs, but items that Liberals argue will generate higher economic growth, like infrastructure and education. They're things the Conservatives do, only the Liberals say they would do more.

No, Mr. Trudeau didn't address the hard choices between balancing the budget and stimulating the economy, let alone whether he'd adopt tax cuts – the challenge Stephen Harper's Conservatives plan to throw in his face. There are few specifics, and no numbers to indicate if it all adds up.

But it does provide a broad shape: it's their frame for a post-deficit debate, where Mr. Trudeau argues governments can do more to boost growth, and that the Conservatives have missed opportunities to help Canadians deal with stagnant wages, high debt and lacklustre job prospects for young people. It's a step for a leader who's talked about the middle class without saying anything.

It had better be step one in beefing up what he stands for in 2014. He's not really nailed down by party resolutions passed during this week's convention, but how he responds to them does signal who he is. He doesn't need an election platform yet, but does need policy directions soon. If he doesn't start defining his leadership, his opponents will.

Some time this year, there'll be the start of the pre-writ campaign, when parties with money advertise to shape the environment for next year's election. Under Mr. Trudeau, the Liberals have improved fundraising enough to compete. But they know their opponents want to paint the leader as flimsy.

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Up to now, Mr. Trudeau is best known, in policy terms, for backing the legalization of marijuana and kicking senators out of the Liberal caucus. One policy foray was more substantial: signalling that he's resource-friendly, in favour of the Keystone XL pipeline and developing Alberta's oil sands – but even then he left out the hard part, the greenhouse-gas policies he insisted are crucial.

It sent some signals – the first two to portray him representing change, and the energy stand to portray the Liberals as having changed. But he has remained a leader who is vague on governing.

It has worked so far because he walked into the Liberal leadership with an image. People know him, one Liberal adviser said: They know the Trudeau name, fit him into a tradition, and, after seeing him over the years, from his father's eulogy to his election, feel like they've known him a long time. The NDP's Thomas Mulcair didn't have that pre-fab identity after 20 years in politics.

A lot of people seem to want to like Mr. Trudeau, making his opponents' job harder. The Conservatives fired attack ads, just as they did at Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. They targeted his lack of experience, with the tagline, "He's in Way Over His Head." But it didn't impact the polls; for Mr. Trudeau's potential supporters, it looked more like bullying, when they want to give him a chance.

But Liberals who think he's Teflon Trudeau are fooling themselves. Those Conservative radio ads were just softening the ground. Mr. Trudeau does lack experience. He hasn't replaced a lack of past governing with a sense of where he would go. People aren't yet willing to write him off as "in way over his head." But he can walk right into that narrative this year, if he can`t tell them what he is.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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