LONDON, ONT. — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau opened a two-day caucus retreat to plot strategy to win government by flagging the “uncertainty” in the economy and the world as the key challenges Liberals need to meet to win the confidence of Canadians.
“We have a lot of work ahead,” Trudeau said in brief remarks before his small group of MPs went behind closed doors for meetings. “People are going to be looking for steady strong leadership.”
The Liberals, currently the third-place party in the Commons, have not released any major economic policy proposals since Trudeau became leader in April 2013, but have hinted at greater investment in infrastructure and education and vow to boost the fortunes of the “middle class.”
The economic challenge was underscored by a Statistics Canada report Tuesday that showed manufacturing sales declined 1.4 per cent in November, in large part due to lower sales of motor vehicles and chemicals. Sales declined in 16 of 21 industries, representing more than 80 per cent of total Canadian manufacturing. It was the third decrease in four months, but year-to-date sales in 2014 were 5.2 per cent higher than those in the first 11 months of 2013. And sliding energy prices, a lower Canadian dollar along with a rebounding U.S. economy are expected to aid Canada’s manufacturing sector.
Trudeau said he “got to totally geek out” discussing “materials and processes” during a visit Monday to Meridian Magnesium, a plant that manufactures lightweight cast metal automotive parts.
He said he believes there is “extraordinary opportunity” in the region.
“The people of southwestern Ontario are amazingly resilient and have demonstrated that moving beyond manufacturing-based employment is something that they’re willing to do and, as is the case in so many parts of the country, they need a willing partner in Ottawa . . . a government that listens, a government that works with municipalities and provinces to build a better future for the middle class and all those who want get there.”
On Wednesday, Liberal MPs at the caucus retreat will hear from area municipal councillors and mayors from around southwestern Ontario — a region hit hard by manufacturing cuts through the global recession.
First though, election readiness is key.
The Liberals will review regional caucus reports in the context of developing a campaign platform, and will scrutinize party readiness and fundraising numbers in the afternoon before Trudeau leads a rally of supporters here late Tuesday.
As he entered the meetings, deputy leader Ralph Goodale slammed the Conservatives for “pre-spending” the surplus, “squandering money” and delaying the federal budget — a move he says does not rule out a spring election.
“The message from the Conservatives is that they don’t know what to do. Obviously if they knew what to do they wouldn’t have punted the budget beyond this fiscal year. By taking that rather dramatic step by delaying the budget into April at the earliest, it sends a message of real confusion on their part, a lack of confidence, a lack of direction, they’ve run out of gas and it seems like they don’t know who’s steering the bus. It really is entirely the wrong message to come from the government at a time of some economic challenges.”
Still, other than saying the Liberal party would scrap the Conservatives’ income-splitting promise for two-parent families, Goodale was mum when it came to identifying what the Liberal party would do differently.
“Obviously when we lay out our platform we will show how all these pieces fit together in a coherent fiscal plan, but the message will be we know how to build an economy.”
He declined to answer a direct question about whether the Liberals would retain — as the NDP has said it would — the Conservatives’ promised measure of increasing child care cheques to parents of children under 18, up to $160 a month for a child under 6.
Instead, Goodale said the Liberal party was the party that “invented the child care benefit system” in the mid-1990s. That program provides targeted income support for lower income households.
“That system pumps in about $11 billion a year in terms of benefits to low and middle class families. That is a good solid progressive foundation to build on and we will be looking at the ways in which that system can be enhanced,” said Goodale.
As for the other challenge for the Liberals — projecting strength and resolve in the face of a growing Islamist jihadist threat in the Middle East and in western democracies — there was no indication the Liberals are rethinking their position.
House leader Dominic LeBlanc suggested news that Canadian special forces troops had returned fire at the front lines in Iraq where they were aiding Iraqi troops to target airstrikes on Islamic State positions “confirms to us the nature of the mission may have changed.”
However, LeBlanc said despite the shift in engagement by Canadian troops and despite increased terror threat levels since the Paris attacks on the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine, he sees no need for the Liberals to change their position — which was to oppose the parliamentary motion to authorize Canadian military training and airstrikes in Iraq.
“I don’t think we have to change our position yet. I don’t think we have adequate information. The government chooses at a sort of improvised news conference to say, ‘Oh, by the way, our ground forces are returning fire in some circumstance on the ground,’ so I think it’s important for us to hear from the government in a transparent way, for Parliament and Canadians to understand exactly what the government has in mind in this mission, but I’m very comfortable with the principled position we took last fall.”