Canadian Liberals are gearing up for next year’s election by seeking to reestablish the party’s credentials on the economy and national unity.
Party leader Justin Trudeau used a weekend policy convention in Montreal to outline an economic policy that includes a bigger role for government and a pledge to avoid policies that fuel divisions between Canada and the French-speaking province of Quebec. The once-dominant Liberal Party now ranks third in seats in the federal House of Commons.
To regain power, Trudeau, 42, must overtake the ruling Conservatives on the issue of economic management, which polls show is Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s main strength. Trudeau is also vying for more votes in Quebec, where the Liberals fell to fourth place in 2011, with a message he can be a voice for French-speakers even as the provincial Parti Quebecois, which advocates separation from Canada, has seen growing popularity.
“The Liberals doled out political comfort food” at the convention, said Nik Nanos, an Ottawa-based pollster and chairman of Nanos Research Group.
Trudeau’s party hopes to consolidate momentum that had them leading public opinion polls for much of the past year. The Liberals have averaged 35 percent approval in most recent surveys, compared with 29 percent for the ruling Conservative Party and 25 percent support for the New Democratic Party, according to poll aggregator threehundredeight.com.
“I ask you to help me build a party that will stay committed to our principles: fairness, freedom, progress, opportunity, compassion,” Trudeau, the son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, said in his keynote speech at the convention on Saturday. “Let’s devote our every waking moment to giving all Canadians a real and fair chance.”
The Liberals under former leader Michael Ignatieff were crushed in the 2011 election, with their seat total and vote share falling to the lowest since Canada was founded in 1867. They have the third-most seats behind Harper’s Conservatives and the main opposition NDP, which is led by another Quebecker, Thomas Mulcair.
On the economy, the Liberals have tried to appeal to middle-class Canadians anxious about record high household debt and what the Liberals say has been rising income inequality. The government needs to play a more active role in the economy, Trudeau said, to help boost incomes of groups that have fared less well in recent decades and promote growth through spending on higher eduction and infrastructure.
“The Conservatives are way-less strong on economics than they contend,” John McCallum, a Liberal lawmaker and former minister of revenue under the party’s last government, said in an interview in Montreal.
Following an initial surge after emerging from recession in 2009, Canada’s economy has struggled to build momentum, averaging just 1.9 percent annualized growth since the first quarter of 2011. Statistics Canada will publish growth data for the last quarter of 2013 on Feb. 28.
Trudeau also pledged not to raise taxes for the middle class and said that without more widely-spread growth, Canada risks losing popular support for policies such as balanced budgets and free trade agreements.
“If we don’t fix that, the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda and that will make us all poorer,” Trudeau said Feb. 22, in front of supporters gathered at the Palais de Congres in Montreal.
That includes sustainable resource development, Trudeau said, adding that sound environmental policy is also good for business.
“It is a fundamental economic responsibility for the prime minister of Canada to get our resources to global markets, but more and more the way to do that is with a robust environmental policy that gives assurances to our trading partners that those resources are developed responsibly,” said Trudeau, sparking a standing ovation from the audience.
Canadians have been waiting to see if President Barack Obama will approve TransCanada Corp.’s $5.4 billion Keystone XL pipeline that would carry bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Obama has said the project will be in U.S. interests only if it doesn’t significantly add to carbon pollution.
The convention took place in Canada’s second-most populous city amid the specter of a provincial election in Quebec that polls suggest may produce the first separatist majority government in a decade. Trudeau may benefit from that development, said Nanos.
He would like people to be asking themselves, “Which federal party leader would you like to send into Quebec to fight the separatists?” Nanos said.
Montreal’s La Presse newspaper and Ici Radio-Canada television reported last week that Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, buoyed by rising support, is planning to call an election in the next two weeks. Marois’ Parti Quebecois government lacks a majority in the provincial legislature, meaning she needs the support of opposition parties to pass legislation.
Forty percent of respondents in a Crop Inc. Internet poll published Feb. 18 in Montreal’s La Presse newspaper said they would back the Parti Quebecois if an election were held now, compared with 34 percent for the provincial Liberal Party. That result would be enough for the separatists to form a majority government, La Presse reported. Crop surveyed 1,000 Quebec residents from Feb. 13 to 16.
Trudeau criticized Marois in both of his speeches during the convention and made a direct plea, in French, to Quebeckers in his speech.
“They want us to leave behind the old constitutional bickering and take care of the priorities of the middle class,” Trudeau said.
He also criticized the NDP and Conservatives for proposing policies on Senate reform that could lead to a constitutional crisis like the one in the 1990s that eventually led Quebec to hold a referendum on leaving the country in 1995.
“They are willing to play gains with the Canadian constitution for narrow partisan advantage,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau’s most pointed criticism was for Harper, and he spent seven minutes of his 40-minute keynote speech appealing to Conservative voters, claiming the prime minister has become unprincipled in power.
“Desire for change is growing in this country,” Trudeau said. “Many Canadians who voted Conservative last time are beginning to cast a weary eye on this government.”