In previous years, the Liberals have lagged behind the Tories and the NDP on issues of political "inside baseball" -- issues that only Canadians who follow federal politics on a regular basis are likely to care deeply about.
Take electoral reform for instance. The western-based Tories, owing much of their ideology to their Reform Party precursor, were always known to support Senate reform. When one thinks of the NDP, proportional representation and senate abolition come to mind on this issue almost instinctively.
The Liberals are not known to have any clear opinion on this file. More importantly however, if they don't start framing the terms of debate when it comes to issues that most Canadians actually care about, they're in serious trouble.
With slow growth projected for years to come, and a demographic crisis about to hit that will drive the cost of large programs and services though the roof, the economy is likely to be the most important issue for Canadians in the foreseeable future.
One can't help but think about the 1980 election after having heard about NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's recently announced "East-West gambit". Trudeau's promised National Energy Program (NEP) would supposedly fill Ottawa's coffers with western oil money meant to finance the East.
Trudeau's NEP turned out to be a dismal failure after the recession of the early 1980s caused the price of oil to drop dramatically. Of course, much can happen both economically and geopolitically to affect the price of oil over the next several years, but it's safe to say that it is foolish to be overly reliant upon one economic sector. The Tories' overt focus on oil exports is just as asinine as the NDP's plans to massively tax the sands.
But what matters first is not the quality of the policies being proposed, but rather the fact that the Conservatives and the NDP are framing the terms of the economic debate.
The Harper Conservatives easily won the 2011 election because they were the only party appealing to Canadians' pocketbooks. The NDP's rise can be attributed to the lack of a clear Liberal message, Jack Layton's personal popularity, and the Bloc Québécois flirting a little too seriously with Quebec separation.
2015 will be different, however. Mulcair is poised to provide a compelling alternative economic vision for the future of Canada. The Grits can't afford to be missing in action once again on the economic file with the large possibility of being squeezed out.
Admittedly, the Liberal Party has yet to elect a leader. Perhaps this is why it is arriving late to this debate. Yet the long-present trend of the Grits choosing moderation (i.e. the reactionary measure of positioning oneself between two existing poles) over progressiveness (i.e. articulating an original vision) won't revive the party.
Trudeau's NEP election promise in 1980 was hastily conceived in the wake of the surprising fall of Joe Clark's minority government, whereas Mulcair's similar pledge is taking place three years before an election. Therefore, it is not too late for the Liberals to advance a plan to counter the possibly effective regionalism of both the Conservatives and the NDP.
What needs to be understood however, is that the next Liberal leader must be the anti-Dion and the anti-Ignatieff when it comes to messaging. Stéphane Dion tried to make the environment the issue of the 2008 campaign. Michael Ignatieff's campaign last year zeroed-in on Tory parliamentary and democratic abuse. The Liberal campaign message in 2015 must be focused around the economy.
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