Justin Trudeau built a campaign around a slogan of “real change,” promising to do more to deal with the insecurities felt by the “middle class and those working hard to join it.” Pierre Poilievre is building a campaign around “freedom” that starts with a focus on the financial frustrations felt by many of the same people.
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Pierre Poilievre might recoil at the suggestion, but the Conservative leadership campaign he is running in 2022 is not entirely dissimilar to the campaign Justin Trudeau started running a decade ago.
There are certainly discordant notes — and Poilievre is pursuing very different ends. But at the heart of Poilievre’s current stump speech is something that was at the core of Trudeau’s Liberal campaign: financial insecurity.
Trudeau built a campaign for “real change” upon a foundation of addressing the insecurities felt by the “middle class and those working hard to join it.”
In 2022, Poilievre is building a campaign for “freedom” that starts with a focus on the financial frustrations felt by many of the same people.
In that way, “affordability” might be the new “middle class,” as Colin Horgan, who worked for the Liberal campaign in 2015, put it recently.
But while Poilievre is starting from a similar premise, he is using it to argue that the federal government should be pushed in nearly the opposite direction.
Why Trudeau talked about the ‘middle class’
“Those who think the middle class is thriving in this country should spend more time with their fellow citizens,” Trudeau wrote in October 2012, four weeks after launching his campaign for the Liberal leadership. “In the past 30 years, the Canadian economy has more than doubled in size. But unlike times before, virtually all of the benefit of that growth has accrued to a small number of wealthy Canadians.”
On one level, the Liberal focus on supporting and expanding the “middle class” was about finding an inclusive way to talk about income inequality — an issue that came to the fore in the wake of the Great Recession.
The “middle class” also pushed the conversation beyond the usual talk about “the economy.” It wasn’t about GDP or unemployment figures. It was about how Canadian households were doing.
Trudeau’s Liberals still talked about economic growth. Their turn to deficit spending was justified on the grounds that new funding for infrastructure would stimulate a sluggish economy.
But at the core of the platform was a three-part package of policies aimed at relieving that squeeze on the middle class: a tax cut for those in the second income bracket, a new progressive family benefit (the Canada Child Benefit) and a tax increase for those earning more than $200,000.
The middle class idea was the spine of the Liberal offer, to which other things like the environment, reconciliation and gender equality could be attached. On all fronts, the Liberals promised to be more active than Stephen Harper’s government had been.
But Trudeau cast economic insecurity as more than just a concern to be dealt with. “If we do not attend to this problem,” he warned, “we should not be surprised to see the middle class question the policies, and the very system, that values and encourages growth.”
“Our current political leadership has left the middle class out of the growth equation in Canada, and that’s a dangerous development for everybody,” he wrote in October 2012.
Four years later, voters in the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
Poilievre’s push for a return to smaller government
In 2022, Poilievre is not promising something so radical. But he is running a populist campaign aimed at getting voters to turn on Trudeau Liberalism. While the Trudeau government has partially reversed a two-decade trend of shrinking government, Poilievre is a fan of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And Poilievre’s campaign starts with a focus on inflation and the cost of housing.
“What we have in this country is not one nation. We have two, separated by a gate,” he told a crowd in Vancouver this month. “There are those who are lucky to live on the right side of the gate. They might have a mansion already, in which case they’re doing really well, it’s inflated in value.
“But the people on the other side of the gate are prevented from ever getting in. That’s the system that we have built in this country — by printing cash to inflate the assets of the rich, while also inflating the cost of living for the working poor.”
Until now, Conservatives haven’t really had much to say about economic inequality. According to Poilievre, too much government spending and too much regulation are to blame.
There are some significant holes in his logic. The pandemic spending that Poilievre decries was largely put toward supporting Canadian households and businesses. Inflation is being driven by a number of global factors beyond Canada’s control. And his proposed solutions are debatable.
But he’s speaking to problems that are being felt by the people Liberals would describe as “the middle class and those working hard to join it.” And on top of that foundation Poilievre is trying to build a campaign that also talks of other things — making it easier to build pipelines, repealing the price on carbon emissions, encouraging the use of cryptocurrencies, opposing government regulation of social media companies, attacking the Bank of Canada and defunding the CBC.
In 2012, the Liberals were smart to focus on the economic and financial insecurity of Canadians. But a decade later, it is these new and unaddressed sources of insecurity that threaten to turn the tide against them.
Can Liberals address the new economic insecurity?
Victory for the “freedom” agenda is not at all assured. And there are limits to the parallels between Trudeau’s campaign then and Poilievre’s now.
For one thing, it’s not obvious that the public wants a return to small government. For another, it’s not clear that any campaign can win without a serious and credible plan to deal with climate change. So far, Poilievre’s only climate commitment is to repeal a significant piece of the Liberal plan.
Many Canadians might also feel that dealing with financial insecurity means having a plan for affordable child care and dental care — two Liberal initiatives that any future Conservative government will have to account for.
The next election also might be more than three years away; the Liberal-NDP confidence-and-supply deal is supposed to run through June 2025. That could give the Liberal government time to get more homes built and for the current spike in inflation to work itself out.
But the current moment feels like Trudeau Liberalism coming full circle. In that sense, Trudeau’s warning may now weigh heavily on his own Liberals: if they don’t attend to this problem, they should not be surprised to see the middle class question their policies and agenda.