Liberals seem energized but need better ideas

At one level, the Liberal convention in Montreal was a big success. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, in a highly partisan speech, energized the Liberal grassroots and sent them home, ready to work hard for the 2015 federal election.

At one level, the Liberal convention in Montreal was a big success.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, in a highly partisan speech, energized the Liberal grassroots and sent them home, ready to work hard for the 2015 federal election.

But at another level, the Liberal alternative to the Conservative and NDP parties remains just as fuzzy as it was before the convention. In that sense, it was a big disappointment.

Trudeau’s major speech offered no new ideas. Instead, he gave us vague generalities on the plight of the middle class and a sharply negative attack on Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

But there was not much for Canadians looking for fresh thinking.

Nor did the 32 resolutions adopted by the convention delegates offer serious new policies.

Many, on one issue after another, simply urged a Liberal government to consult — and consult and consult — with provincial and municipal governments, business and other “stakeholders.”

On climate change, Liberal delegates eschewed any mention of a carbon tax and instead called for a “realistic and fair price on carbon,” while urging that climate policy be “evidence-based.” Not much bold thinking there.

On infrastructure, delegates called for spending of “up to” one per cent of GDP, with the funds only to be used for “projects that have met an integrity test and that have been determined by rigorous and independent expert analysis to contribute to objectives such as robust job creation, world-class public transit systems, increased energy efficiency and sustainable water systems.” Given the tests that every project must meet, this is not a program that could hit the ground running.

Another resolution committed the Liberal Party to “consult with provinces, territories and municipalities and propose an integrated, intermodal national transportation strategy that serves large and small communities, within two years of taking office.” You could not call that ambitious.

On a national energy strategy, the Liberals simply resolved that the Liberal Party, in “consultation with Canadians” will develop a national energy strategy leading to a low-carbon system in line with Canada’s international commitments “while enhancing our economic success.”

That would seem to mean a low-carbon economy that produces lots of oil.

And on innovation, the Liberal delegates called for “an integrated, long-term approach that employs experts from academia, government and business; engages the social innovation community; and works with the educational system to develop high-quality researchers and effective entrepreneurs.” More consultations.

Surprisingly, none of the Liberal resolutions addressed directly the big Liberal theme of rescuing the middle class, although Trudeau spent much of his speech on the plight of the middle class. “What we’re after is an economy that provides well-paying, good jobs for as many Canadians as possible.”

The question is how to achieve it.

Little was offered by Trudeau in terms of solutions.

Moreover, in contrast to his focus on the middle class, Trudeau largely ignored the plight of those living in poverty or of the working poor, except to suggest that if more middle-class families had good jobs, this would create a ladder for low-income Canadians to climb into the middle class.

The problem is that Liberals have yet to actually define the middle-class problem they want to address, provide a serious analysis of why there is a problem, or explain how they would make things better.

“Productive growth is important. Innovation is important,” Trudeau said. But he quickly moved on to say these were only means to an end. But one of the greatest challenges for Canada is to improve productivity through a more innovative economy. Unless this is done, there will be limited means to achieve all of the noble ends that the Liberals say they want to address.

What the Liberal convention really showed was that the serious hard choices on policy have yet to be made.

Trudeau as celebrity cannot easily be sustained for 20 more months so the Liberals don’t have a choice — they have to show they have the best ideas if they want to win.

Right now, they don’t.

The 2015 election will matter. It will be about who governs in the last half of this decade and prepares Canada for the 2020s, the third decade of the 21st century.

This will be a period of enormous change in the world, and Canadians should demand that their politicians get serious about showing they understand what’s at stake and how Canada can best prosper in a much different world.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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