OTTAWA — Almost nine years of Conservative rule have produced a legacy of “cynicism” and “division” that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is vowing to overturn in the coming election battle.
Trudeau accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives of playing on the country’s religious, ethnic and geographical differences for political advantage.
“We know that careful application of these politics, of strategic vote-getting and wedge politics and division and negativity can actually lead to getting a majority government. Mr. Harper is proof of that,” Trudeau told the Star in an interview Friday.
Trudeau doesn’t hesitate in declaring that the economy will be the ballot question of the federal election, scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015.
It’s an issue that Harper has sought to make his own, boasting that under Conservative leadership, Canada weathered the recession and its aftermath better than most countries.
But Trudeau is less impressed with the Tory track record.
“What I’m hearing from Canadians is there is a level of anxiety about their future, about their kids’ future, about how they are going to care for aging parents that this government simply hasn’t responded to,” he said.
But while the economy will be top of mind for voters, Trudeau suggests that the style of government will also be an issue in the coming campaign, saying the Conservative tenure has been marked by a “negative tone, a nastiness and actually a lack of ambition and vision of this country.”
He said the Conservatives have undermined Ottawa’s relationship with Canadians by gagging scientists, clamping down on the release of government information and putting its own MPs under tight control.
Trudeau says he would meet at least once a year with premiers and territorial leaders, saying that good government “draws people together.”
Since becoming leader, Trudeau has put a focus on the middle class, a theme certain to dominate the party’s election pitch. He said the party is now consulting with “experts” as it hammers out its election pledges. But unlike the New Democrats, who have been rolling out their election promises, Trudeau said voters will have to wait until closer to the election before they see the Liberal plan.
He’s made clear that the Liberals oppose the Conservatives’ income-splitting pledge, calling it a costly plan that will benefit only a few.
He declined to say whether a Liberal government would scrap the recent commitment by the Tories to boost child benefit payments to parents, saying only that “all options are on the table.”
But he did promise that a Liberal government would not hike taxes, saying instead that it would find savings to pay for its program.
“I don’t think we need to draw in more in the way of revenue except through growing the economy. I think Canadians, particularly middle-class Canadians, are taxed enough,” he said.
Parliament resumes in January, kicking off an election year that will be a key test for Trudeau and his party and whether they can reverse the disastrous electoral performances of 2008 and 2011 that reduced the Liberals to third place for the first time ever.
He’s already the target of Conservative attack ads and the dismissive shrugs of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, just a taste of what’s to come. But Trudeau professes he is unfazed by the political jabs.
“I don’t worry too much about what my opponents think of me. All my life people have had impressions of me, positive or negative, based on things completely unrelated to who I actually am,” he said.
In the first full year after becoming leader in the spring of 2013, Trudeau moved put his stamp on the party.
Reflecting on the past 12 months, he said he was proud of the strides Liberals have made in their election readiness, drawing in almost 300,000 members, byelection successes — with victories in some ridings and improved showings in others — and fundraising gains.
But he also takes pride in democratic reforms he has brought in, such as last year’s decision to force MPs and senators to publish travel and hospitality expenses.
In January, he tossed 32 Liberal senators from caucus and from future partisan duties for the party. On Friday, he boasted that he had done more in a “single morning” to remove partisanship from the Senate than Harper has accomplished in nine years.
But it was also a year that included missteps for the fledgling leader, notably on foreign issues, when he had to apologize for appearing to make light of the crisis in Ukraine and later made an off-colour reference to the deployment of Canadian fighter jets to combat Islamic State extremists in Iraq.
But Trudeau made no apologies. “The fact is I’m not the kind of scripted, controlled rigid politician that Mr. Harper is,” he said, adding that Canadians “appreciate” his openness.
He also doesn’t regret the Liberals’ opposition to the government’s decision send fighter jets into combat over Iraq. He said Canada had the ability to assist with humanitarian efforts, aid displaced refugees or provide medical support and air lift capacity but that the prime minister turned a deaf ear to such ideas.
“I have said from the very beginning that I know Canada has an important role to play as part of the coalition fighting against ISIL (Islamic State). My disagreement with the prime minister was on how Canada can best contribute to the international efforts,” he said.
He said the Liberals backed the move to deploy 69 military advisers to Iraq and would support the deployment of even more, as other countries are doing.