Forward: A Real Plan for the Middle Class – A Look at the Liberal Party 2019 Platform

Justin Trudeau used the last Sunday of September to release his party’s election platform at the University of Toronto (Mississauga) campus. The document’s focus is on continuing economic growth and ensuring Canadians in the middle-class share in the benefits through government action. In particular, the Liberals focused on three groups – millennials, young families and vulnerable seniors – who were critical elements of the three million voters Trudeau added to the electorate last election. The document lays out a line-by-line spending tally for each new commitment – with a few exceptions – in an 85-page manifesto. Given his lead in predicted seats in the House of Commons continues to hold steady, this very well could be the next platform implemented in Canada. So, given its potential importance for the next four years, what do you need to know?

Where they Got it Right:

The Liberal platform is a truly political document. It takes painstaking effort to ensure that every category of people can see themselves reflected in the document – except for the wealthy of course. No one has been left out of the plan and that is where the platform shows its strengths. Aside from some of the larger promises, such as the well-regarded expansion of the Canada Child Benefit, the platform contains a mix of mostly smaller items and some more ambitious end goals commonly referred to as ‘moonshots.’ This combination of incremental reforms toward larger systemic goals is the platform’s secret sauce.

For example, Trudeau chose to make gun control a front-burner issue with the electorate. The high-level promise is easy to communicate in an ad or at the door in a statement like, “We will ban assault rifles and crack down on gun crime.”[1] However, to implement a crackdown on gun crime you need specific policies, which the platform also has, like requiring proof of permit when importing ammunition or introducing a system that flags the bulk purchasing of guns at once. These more nuanced positions are important, because they add immediate credibility to an otherwise unsubstantiated claim.

This theme pervades throughout. The platform waxes poetic about increasing access to justice then specifies doing so through specific promises like implementing a former Conservative MPs bill to ensure all judges undertake mandatory sexual assault training. The platform boldly promises that “every homeless veteran has a place to call home”[2] then later attempts to back up the promise by pledging $15 million a year to build housing for homeless veterans.

Will $15 million be enough to end veteran homelessness? Will mandatory sexual assault training for judges have a big impact on access to justice? Will flagging bulk purchases of guns or forcing stricter ammunition import rules lead to a reduction in gun crimes? Ultimately, these are incremental steps rather than sweeping transformations, but the platform has done what it intended to do – tap into the overall concern at the root of the issue and put forward funded exemplars that could help solve them. Big intentions buffeted by small actions is this platform’s strength.

Where They Got it Wrong:

Even though the platform’s formula may be a successful one at communicating intention, the platform struggles to articulate more than one singular viewpoint as a solution. Almost without fail, the solution to each problem identified is government spending, plain and simple. Funding can be part of the solution to many challenges, but it is rarely the only step, or even the most important one. Too often there is insufficient detail on how the money is being spent or not enough of it to functionally fix the problem at hand.

For example, the platform clearly articulates a desire to have Canadians “protect, promote and strengthen the culture that brings people together.”[3] The question then becomes, how? The answer from the Trudeau Liberals is to give every child a $200 voucher to the movies, museums, galleries, or another cultural attraction when they turn 12 years old. With just over 400,000 12-year old children in the country at any given time,[4] the Liberals have created an $80 million a year program with no outcomes, metrics, or measurable goals in mind, not to mention it is dependent on the cultural taste of pre-teens to deliver it.

This pattern happens repeatedly. The platform promises to help small businesses by cutting federal registry costs by $125 and giving any business that expands its “online services” $250.[5] The Parliamentary Budget Officer showed these two promises will cost $26 million annually and that the cost doesn’t increase over time,[6] meaning the $375 in combined help per business does not envisage that any new businesses to start because of it. Again, the promise has no real purpose or outcome, but gives the Liberals the ability to say they are cutting red tape and supporting small business owners.

Perhaps the bigger challenge in the electoral context is the lack of ambition in the Liberal platform. In 2015, the Liberals were able to lure three million people who missed the 2011 vote into the electorate, in part with excitement fueled by outside-the-box policies that flouted the political wisdom of political elites like cannabis legalization, deficit financing to stimulate the economy, and ambitious electoral reform plans. This time, there is an evident tentativeness. $350 less in business fees or $200 in movie passes just does not capture the imagination of potential non-voters in the same way.

What to Watch For if They Win:

The biggest question mark coming out of the Liberal platform is the adherence to the fiscal plan. In 2015, the Liberals released their anticipated revenues and expenses, much like in 2019. However, once in government they walked away from that plan dramatically, running a $14 billion deficit in the year that they had promised budget balance. In 2019, the Liberals have doubled down on revealing a fiscal plan that shows revenues and expenses but this time have not provided a timeline for balancing the budget.

In addition, the plan leaves out the costs of servicing the new $31.5 billion of debt they would create, and it leaves out the cost of a couple big ticket promises like a universal pharmacare system. At the same time, the plan is honest about several years of large deficits on the horizon. In 2015, the plan reflected a belief that people cared about balanced budgets but in 2019, the plan clearly bets that Canadians are okay with deficits. So, the question really is, would a new Liberal government stick closely to this fiscal plan or not?

Final Verdict:

You can find the full Liberal platform here – https://2019.liberal.ca/our-platform/

Platforms are not a plan for how to govern, but rather political documents designed to achieve an electoral purpose. This document achieves many of the Liberals strategic intentions: it enables the party to speak with credibility to their intentions, and set up a battle with the Conservatives over affordability where the Liberals can argue their plan is focused on the middle-class while the Conservatives give tax breaks to millionaires.

However, there are two gaps that will likely become apparent if the Liberals are successful. First, the platform dramatically underestimates the size of the problems that it identifies. Rural alienation, Indigenous reconciliation, business growth, and the decline in Canadian cultural content can’t be fixed easily with boutique policy like free movie passes and subsidized business fees. Government only has so many tools to use in the first place and the platform seems to want to use even fewer of them, resorting purely to cheque writing and hoping.

Second, by choosing so many problems to tackle, with so few resources and such soaring rhetoric, the Liberals set themselves up for a replay of their first term: strong communications but challenges delivering on top government priorities. When you only traffic in absolutes that are difficult to accomplish but easy to measure – not one homeless veteran for example – your chances of true success are slim.

Ultimately, the platform does exactly what it needed to do for the election. It doesn’t create any intense controversy and positions the Liberals on strong terrain for the decisive element of the election to come, by signaling intentions and providing some incremental solutions to fix those problems. If they are successful and earn a mandate for those intentions, a new Liberal government will then need to undertake the hard multi-faceted work – regulatory, persuasive, financial, and administrative – that achieves real progress on the ambitious goals they set.

[1] 2019 Liberal Platform – Page 38. https://2019.liberal.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/292/2019/09/Forward-A-real-plan-for-the-middle-class.pdf

[2] Ibid. Page 43.

[3] Ibid. Page 49.

[4] Statistics Canada.  Table  17-10-0005-01   Population estimates on July 1st, by age and sex

[5] 2019 Liberal Platform. Page 19-20

[6] https://www.pbo-dpb.gc.ca/web/default/files/Documents/ElectionProposalCosting/Results/32842195_EN.pdf?timestamp=1569936192049