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Can the Trudeau government revive its old ‘middle class’ message?

Pierre Poilievre went to Charlottetown last week and stood in front of a gas station sign to restate his opposition to a pair of federal climate policies: the national price on carbon and new clean fuel regulations.

After gesturing at the price of unleaded gasoline displayed behind him, the Conservative leader said he understood the “affordability crisis” that Islanders were “suffering” through after “eight years of Trudeau.”

Poilievre is adept at conveying ire but he still lacks a plan for reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions — a significant policy gap at a time when large parts of the country are on fire. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will also argue that regulators and governments in the Atlantic provinces have unjustifiably allowed oil companies to pass the cost of climate action on to consumers.

News crews surround Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre as he holds a news conference at a gas station in Charlottetown.
News crews surround Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre as he holds a news conference at a gas station in Charlottetown during a recent visit to P.E.I. (Julien Lecacheur/Radio-Canada)

But Trudeau, who arrives in Charlottetown on Monday, should understand the potency of Poilievre’s economic message. It’s not a far cry from what the prime minister himself was saying a decade ago.

“Those who think the middle class is thriving in this country should spend more time with their fellow citizens,” Trudeau wrote in October 2012, shortly after launching his bid for the Liberal leadership. “[The] squeezing of the Canadian middle class does not need to be explained to those who live it every day.”

If there’s one simple explanation for where the Liberals find themselves in the summer of 2023 — trailing by several points in the latest spate of opinion polls — it might be this current moment of “squeezing.” The Trudeau government’s re-election hopes may depend to a large extent on whether it can recapture the promise of economic security implicit in the “middle class” message that brought it to power in 2015.

Trudeau and his ministers are visiting the Cradle of Confederation this week for a cabinet retreat — the traditional late summer confab to prepare the government’s fall agenda. They’re meeting three weeks after a cabinet shuffle that was meant, at least in part, to bolster the government’s economic team.

Over three days of discussions, cabinet is expected to take part in sessions focused on housing and the challenges faced by young people —particularly those 20- and 30-somethings worried about both the cost of housing and the future of a changing economy and climate. During the session on housing, ministers will hear from two of the authors of a recent report on how the federal government can boost the availability of rental properties.

There’s a lot to talk about.

According to a survey conducted by Abacus Data in July, the rising cost of living is far and away the top concern for Canadians, while housing affordability now rivals health care as a priority. Recent data from Environics also shows that Canadians are markedly more worried about household debt than they were a decade ago — with the biggest spike in debt anxiety reported among those aged 18 to 44.

A man sits on the edge of a bed.
Polling suggests Canadians are far more worried about personal debt now. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

While Canadians fret, the Liberals seem to be struggling to get a hearing. According to Abacus, many Canadians believe government spending is a major driver of inflation (a central premise of Poilievre’s argument). Just 13 per cent of respondents understand that inflation is lower in Canada than in other G7 countries; 52 per cent of Canadians believe, incorrectly, that inflation is higher here.

Even with younger voters — a traditional source of support for Trudeau — the Liberals are struggling. Abacus has found that among Gen Z voters (those born between 1997 and 2005), the Liberals trail the Conservatives by four points. Among millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996), the Liberals trail by 11 points.

With up to two years remaining until the next federal election, it would be silly to draw conclusions now about the fate of Trudeau’s government. But clearly, the Liberals have work to do if they want their government to survive past 2025. And to understand how crucial that work might be, the Liberals only have to remember what brought them to power in the first place.

Trudeau’s middle class economics

From the start, Trudeau’s rhetorical and policy focus on the “middle class and those working hard to to join it” was widely debated and often derided. Poilievre openly mocked it again last week during an “axe the tax” rally he held after visiting that gas station.

“The famous middle class — remember Justin Trudeau was going to do everything for the middle class?” he scoffed.

But both the message and the policy agenda that supported it were effective. Internal Liberal polling in 2015 found that Trudeau still trailed Stephen Harper when voters were asked which party leader would best manage the economy. But when voters were asked who would do the most for the middle class, Trudeau was the overwhelming choice.

A man stands at a podium in front of a Canadian flag.
Liberal leader and incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau takes the stage at Liberal Party headquarters in Montreal early Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015 after winning the 42nd general election. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

While Trudeau’s Liberals came to office with a number of priorities in mind — reconciliation, climate change, political reform, diversity and inclusion, gender equality — it was the idea of helping the middle class that acted as the spine of the Liberal platform, holding everything together.

Critics tended to get caught up in the wording, but the rhetorical construct of the “middle class” was really about economic equality, security and comfort. And it was a powerful factor in getting a progressive government elected. Notably, Joe Biden’s Democrats are currently pursuing the same focus as they attempt to win what might be one of the most consequential elections in American history.

The squeeze is on, again

In that op-ed from October 2012, Trudeau stressed the importance of the promise of “upward mobility” and “economic opportunity.” He wrote that the wealthiest were enjoying a disproportionate share of the benefits of economic growth, while middle class households were dealing with “unprecedented” levels of personal debt, stagnating wages and “an increasingly inaccessible housing market, especially in cities like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.”

A decade later, the Liberals can point to a number of things they’ve done in office to deal with the insecurity and inequality that Trudeau identified. But they can’t claim to have solved all the problems Trudeau wrote of in 2012 (if anything, the housing market is in worse shape). New sources of economic stress — inflation, higher interest rates — have emerged.

Even as parts of the country continue to burn, the high cost of groceries and mortgage payments is impossible to ignore. And just as economic security held the Liberal offer together in 2015, it now threatens to undermine everything the Liberals wish to champion.

In 2012, Trudeau warned of consequences if governments fail to address the basic economic concerns of the middle class. He seemed even to anticipate the wave of populism that would soon sweep over countries like the United States and the U.K.

“If we do not attend to this problem,” he wrote, “we should not be surprised to see the middle class question the policies, and the very system, that values and encourages growth.”

As an explanation for the origin and power of modern populism, the theory of “economic anxiety” leaves much to be desired. But if Trudeau and his ministers can’t win the argument on economic security this time, they could find themselves replaced by a very different kind of government.

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