Pierre Poilievre might back down from this suggestion, but the Conservative leadership campaign he is leading in 2022 is not entirely different from the campaign Justin Trudeau launched a decade ago.
There are definitely some jarring notes — and Poilievre pursues very different ends. But at the heart of Poilievre’s current stump talk is something that was at the heart of Trudeau’s Liberal campaign: financial insecurity.
Trudeau built a campaign for “real change” based on 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 begins by focusing on the financial frustrations felt by many of the same people.
In this way, “affordability” could be the new “middle class”, like Colin Horgan, who worked for the Liberal campaign in 2015, put recently.
But while Poilievre starts from a similar premise, he uses it to argue that the federal government should be pushed almost in the opposite direction.
Why Trudeau spoke of 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 Liberal leadership campaign. “Over the past 30 years, the size of the Canadian economy has more than doubled. But unlike before, virtually all of the benefits of this growth have accrued to a small number of wealthy Canadians.”
At one level, the liberal focus on supporting and expanding the “middle class” was finding an inclusive way to talk about income inequality – an issue that came to the fore as a result of the Great Recession.
The “middle class” also pushed the conversation beyond the usual discourse on “the economy”. These were not GDP or unemployment figures. It was about how Canadian households were doing.
The Trudeau Liberals were still talking about economic growth. Their reliance on deficit spending was justified on the grounds that new infrastructure funding would stimulate a sluggish economy.
But at the heart of the platform was a three-pronged set of policies aimed at alleviating this squeeze on the middle class: a tax cut for people 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 idea of the middle class was the backbone of the liberal offer, to which other elements 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 presented economic insecurity as more than just a concern to be addressed. “If we don’t address this issue,” he warned, “we shouldn’t be surprised to see the middle class questioning the policies, and the system itself, that values and encourages growth.”
“Our current political leadership has left the middle class out of the growth equation in Canada, and this is a dangerous development for everyone,” 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 isn’t promising anything so drastic. But he is waging a populist campaign aimed at getting voters to turn to Trudeau’s liberalism. While the Trudeau government has partially reversed a two-decade trend of government downsizing, Poilievre is a fan of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And Poilievre’s campaign begins by focusing on inflation and the cost of housing.
“What we have in this country is not one nation. We have two, separated by a door,” he told a crowd in Vancouver this month. “There are those who are lucky enough to live on the right side of the door. They may already have a mansion, in which case they are doing very well, its value is inflated.
“But the people on the other side of the gate can never get in. That’s the system we’ve built in this country – printing money to inflate the assets of the wealthy, while inflating the cost of life for the working poor.”
So far, 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 significant holes in his logic. The pandemic-related spending that Poilievre denounces has largely been spent supporting Canadian households and businesses. Inflation is fueled by a number of global factors beyond Canada’s control. And his proposed solutions are questionable.
But he talks about the problems felt by people who 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 talks about other things too – making it easier to build pipelines, repeal the price on carbon emissions, encouraging the use of cryptocurrencies, opposing regulation social media companies, attacking the Bank of Canada and defunding the CBC.
In 2012, the Liberals were smart in focusing 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.
Can the Liberals tackle the new economic insecurity?
The victory of the “freedom” agenda is by no means assured. And there are limits to the parallels between Trudeau’s campaign then and Poilievre’s now.
On the one hand, it is not clear that the public wants a return to small government. On the other hand, it is not clear that a 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 part of the Liberal plan.
Many Canadians might also think that coping with financial insecurity means having an affordable child care and dental care plan – two Liberal initiatives that any future Conservative government will be held accountable for.
The next election could also be more than three years away; the Liberal-New Democrat confidence agreement is supposed to last until June 2025. This could give the Liberal government time to get more homes built and for the current spike in inflation to abate.
But the current moment feels like Trudeau’s liberalism is coming full circle. In that sense, Trudeau’s warning can now weigh heavily on his own Liberals: if they don’t address this issue, they shouldn’t be surprised to see the middle class questioning their policies and agenda.