Trudeau, Freeland, Carney Illuminate Liberal Strategy at National Liberal Convention

The Liberal Party of Canada’s convention provided a glimpse into the budget, platform, and strategy of the Trudeau Liberals as they look to secure a majority government in the next election. With nearly 60 hours of programming over 3 days, 100 speakers, and 4,000 virtual participants, Saturday evening marked the end to the “largest ever” virtual Liberal Party Convention. Over 40 policy resolutions were debated, and 15 were voted on and approved to become official party policy. However, party policies adopted at a convention often do not become part of a party’s election platform.

While undoubtedly missing much of the excitement of an in-person event, the virtual weekend featured several interesting policies for the federal Liberals. Of note, was the overwhelming support for a resolution to develop and implement a universal basic income in Canada, a resolution that seems to face limited interest from Prime Minister Trudeau. Other resolutions include enforceable national standards for long-term care homes, a 10% increase in old age security for those 70 and over, and the implementation of a national pharmacare program.

Childcare Policy a Priority

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland clearly indicated that childcare policy will be at the centre of her COVID recovery budget, saying that a low-cost childcare system like Quebec’s $10-a-day system will create good-paying jobs and drive economic growth. Pointing to the “she-cession” of the COVID lockdowns, Minister Freeland suggested that there is a window of political opportunity for early learning and childcare policies driven by the federal government. While Monday’s upcoming budget may be the first word, it will not likely be the final word on childcare. Minister Freeland can use Ottawa’s fiscal firepower (aka cash) to accelerate negotiations with the provinces and gain buy-in for a new social program, but universal childcare is likely to remain a substantial challenge to implement, given potential opposition on policy and constitutional grounds from some provinces.

Mark Carney Front-and-Centre

Another notable element of the convention was the political debut of Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada and Bank of England. Currently, the United Nations special envoy on climate action and finance, Carney’s Friday presentation was his first at a partisan event where he indicated his support for the Liberal Party of Canada.

Given his past roles as a central bank governor for two G-7 countries and his increasing role as a political intellectual, Carney’s short-term value may be to supply armour for Trudeau on environmental issues. Similar to how Liberals used former Toronto Police Chief and now Public Safety Minister, Bill Blair, as a shield against accusations that Liberals were “soft on crime.” At the same time, the best window into Liberal thinking may be to see Carney as an environmental and social spear, who can help shape public opinion in favour of Liberal policy. His public affirmation of Liberal net-zero and carbon pricing policies will be seen by Liberals as a benefit to them in terms of the wider political battle.

Political Context

In 2019, polls showed support bleeding from the Liberals to the Greens or NDP, when events forced climate issues to the forefront. Pre-COVID, Liberal strategists wanted to do just enough on climate to earn a checkmark from environmentalists while being able to differentiate against the NDP and the Greens on jobs. However, given a minority Parliament and the re-establishment of the Bloc Quebecois as a substantive presence on the political landscape, things are not quite the same in 2021.

Under new Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, it has been made clear to Conservative partisans that a new approach on climate policy is needed to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate, especially vote-rich seats in the 905 belt in Ontario, the Lower Mainland in British Columbia, and parts of Quebec. However, the challenge for the party is that its base and parliamentary caucus tend to be more right-of-centre than the electorate and this means that any changes in policy will not necessarily win the hearts and minds of the key rank-and-file party members. The rejection of a policy declaration at last month’s Conservative convention that included mention that “climate change is real” certainly did not help O’Toole’s cause in making the case that stronger action on climate policy is needed to appeal to the voter coalition the Conservatives need to win an election.

In addition, a stronger NDP in key ridings in those same electoral battlegrounds does not help the Liberals. Erosion of Liberal support to the NDP could end up electing Conservatives, as was the case in 2011, where Stephen Harper’s path to a majority government included winning large numbers of seats in the Greater Toronto Area, where decreased Liberal and increased NDP support allowed Conservatives to split the left-of-centre vote. As well, a stronger Bloc Québécois hurts Liberal electoral math as Liberals need to win many of those suburban and some rural seats back from the Bloc to find a road to majority.

Framing the Debate

Mark Carney’s presence at the convention is an important sign that Liberals intend to play offence on environmental issues, making the case that there is both an environmental and an economic benefit to Canada in doing so. The Liberal convention ultimately ended with a hotly partisan speech from Trudeau, drawing a litany of contrasts between the Liberals and Conservatives. Many are calling it a campaign speech, adding to speculation about an election as early as this summer. Trudeau charged Conservatives would have not extended the CERB to students and are out of touch with reality on carbon pricing. Direct attacks were also aimed at O’Toole himself with Trudeau drawing comparisons between the two leaders on issues such as gun control and abortion policies.

Trudeau notably shared that he does not want to hold an election during the pandemic, which can be seen as a direct message to fellow Liberals to “cool their jets” on election timing. However, as the Liberals hold only a minority of seats in the House, the government could fall or trigger an election at any point, including after Monday when the government will face several confidence votes on budgetary items between now and the end of June. Although, the NDP has said they will not defeat the government during the pandemic.

It is still an open question as to when an election will be held this spring, summer, or fall. Most likely, no one, including the Prime Minister, knows for certain. Instead, it depends on the speed of vaccine delivery and the reduction in caseloads over the next few weeks. However, if an election is in the offing, the takeaway from this weekend is that Liberals feel very ready to take the fight for a majority government to the Conservatives.