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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Liberal members as he makes his way to the stage for a keynote address at the 2023 Liberal National Convention in Ottawa, on Thursday, May 4, 2023.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

You might not remember Nathalie, but she was Justin Trudeau’s first party-convention icon. Nathalie was the fictional creation that Mr. Trudeau used at his first Liberal convention as leader, in 2014, to symbolize what his politics were going to be all about.

Nathalie earned $40,000 a year, spent a lot of time in traffic, and was anxious about paying her debts, and her kids’ future.

Through Nathalie, Mr. Trudeau told Liberals back then that he was going to run for prime minister on alleviating the economic concerns of ordinary folks – along with a Liberal brand of social justice and blasts at then-Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

Nine years later, Mr. Trudeau made what was almost certainly his last pre-election speech to a Liberal convention, and he was again talking about building the economy for ordinary Canadians. Along with Liberal social “fairness” and, of course, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

Unlike 2014, he now faces an opponent in Mr. Poilievre, who blames him for the economic anxieties of middle-class people like the fictional Nathalie. And everyone knows it won’t be as easy for the third-term Prime Minister to conjure a sense of hope for anxious Canadians.

But look between the many blasts at Mr. Poilievre – partisan politics are the point of conventions – and you could see a through-line about attracting clean-tech plants and jobs and building an economy of the future. Once again, Justin Trudeau is talking about running on the economy.

For the partisan Liberal audience, the big moment of Mr. Trudeau’s speech was just when he was talking about running again. His closing line, after a series of warnings about the “bleak” prospect of Mr. Poilievre’s Canada, was a thundering assertion that it will be “the honour of his life” to lead the Liberals in the next election.

Liberals loved it when Mr. Trudeau belittled Mr. Poilievre as an unserious populist sloganizer, and called him out for calling the Liberals “too woke.” “Hey, Pierre Poilievre, it’s time for you to wake up,” the PM bellowed. It got a standing ovation.

But beyond making Mr. Poilievre the issue, Mr. Trudeau leaned heavily into an argument that only Liberals will build an economy with modern industry.

He repeatedly raised the recent announcement that Volkswagen will build a major electric-vehicle battery plant in St. Thomas, Ont., and insisted that Mr. Poilievre opposes it.

He spoke about his government “investing” – subsidizing, in truth – clean steel and clean-tech supply chains. He more or less told the crowd that Mr. Poilievre wouldn’t lift a finger to attract those jobs and would see Canada left out of the economy of the future.

All of it is touting of the Liberal government’s big-spending industrial-strategy plan, an effort to match U.S. President Joe Biden’s massive green-industry incentives – subsidies for the Volkswagen plant alone could add up to $13.7-billion. But this is political. Mr. Trudeau is building it up as a re-election plank.

There was no Nathalie in Thursday night’s tale. There was a concrete-form carpenter named Michael whom Mr. Trudeau met recently, but his part in the narrative was little more than an opening to give a tradesperson a standing ovation.

But Mr. Trudeau did talk about the 2011 closure of an auto plant in St. Thomas – where that Volkswagen battery plant is going now. Communities that lose plants don’t just lose jobs, but sponsors for kids’ hockey teams, and revenue for family business, he said.

Mr. Poilievre, he said, “doesn’t seem interested in building strong communities. He’s too busy building anger.”

That economic argument is not quite the same as in 2014, but the basics of Mr. Trudeau’s economics remain constant: A promise that interventionist spending will spur growth and spread wealth.

In the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals proposed to do that with infrastructure spending, child benefits and a middle-class tax cut. Now, Mr. Trudeau says he will do it with clean-tech industrial subsidies.

Yet things are so obviously different now. At the 2014 Liberal convention, Mr. Trudeau accused the prime minister, Stephen Harper, of losing his way after eight years as PM. Now, Mr. Poilievre aims similar lines at Mr. Trudeau.

Mr. Poilievre’s biggest political win has been blaming Mr. Trudeau for ordinary Canadians’ economic anxieties – for inflation and 30-year-olds who can’t afford to move out of their parents’ houses.

Still, in the past two elections, in 2019 and 2021, Mr. Trudeau eked out narrow wins with campaigns that lacked focus. No wonder then that as he promises his party he will fight another election, he seems to be looking back a little further, and looking to run on an economic plank again.

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