02/07/2014 07:29 EST | Updated 04/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Justin Trudeau's Economic Agenda Fleshed Out In Caucus Proposals

[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Justin Trudeau speaks as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, 2013

OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau's economic agenda is coming into clearer focus through policy resolutions developed by Liberal MPs for their party's convention later this month.

The caucus resolutions also reveal that the Liberal leader is now willing to consider the notion of a voting system based on proportional representation — an idea he rejected during last year's leadership contest as too confusing and too partisan.

Trudeau has vowed that improving the lot of struggling middle-class Canadians will be the overriding theme of the Liberal platform in the next election, but he's offered few concrete proposals thus far.

The caucus policy resolutions put a little flesh on the bare bones of that promise.

One calls for a royal commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the income tax system and recommend ways to make it simpler, fairer and more globally competitive, while reducing the tax burden on the middle class.

Another calls for "significantly" expanded funding for job-creating infrastructure projects, totalling up to one per cent of GDP per year — or about $18 billion annually, based on the current rate of economic growth.

Trudeau's 35 MPs are also calling for more support for caregivers who help elderly Canadians stay in their homes and for legislated limits on credit card interest rates and fees charged to merchants on credit card purchases.

Of all the 160-plus resolutions to be considered at the convention, those emanating from the caucus are most likely to reflect the leader's thinking. Indeed, the caucus' priority resolution on "restoring trust in Canada's democracy" specifically notes that it is "a compilation of ideas developed by the leader and caucus."

Yet the resolutions most likely to capture headlines come from the party's women's commission and youth wing, both of which are calling for legalization of assisted suicide.

Trudeau has indicated he sees the issue as a distraction from the main event at the convention: a laser-like focus on economic policy.

"Our focus will entirely be on — almost entirely be on economic issues, because that is what is most worrying to Canadians," he said earlier this week.

He tiptoed around his own views on assisted suicide, characterizing the issue as a question of balance between the rights of terminally ill adults and the need to protect vulnerable people, society and its institutions.

"It'll be a minor discussion but an important one for political parties to have, as we must have with our constituents and as parliamentarians on difficult issues. But our focus remains economic success for the middle class in this country."

Another potentially headline grabbing distraction — a resolution calling for legalization, regulation and taxation of prostitution, from which Trudeau distanced himself last month — has helpfully been withdrawn by the British Columbia wing of the party.

Apart from the economy, Trudeau has also tried to distinguish himself from rival parties by advancing a relatively detailed agenda for democratic reform, including allowing more free votes and requiring greater disclosure of parliamentarians' expenses.

The priority caucus resolution essentially lists the elements of Trudeau's democratic reform proposals, including calling for a "truly independent Senate, not based upon partisanship or patronage" — which will give convention delegates a chance to retroactively give their seal of approval to Trudeau's surprise decision last week to boot senators from the Liberal caucus.

They'll get a more direct chance through a last-minute "sense of the convention" resolution proposed by the party's national board. That resolution calls on delegates to support the leader's decision to have only elected MPs sit in the national caucus, to direct the board to propose amendments to the party's constitution at its next convention in 2016 to reflect that decision and, in the interim, to interpret the constitution consistent with the new makeup of caucus.

The constitution currently recognizes senators as members of the national caucus, although it gives the leader discretion to decide who sits in caucus. It also confers special privileges on senators, including automatic delegate status at conventions, a role in choosing interim leaders and one seat on the party's policy development committee.

The deadline for proposing amendments to the constitution had already passed when Trudeau stunned everyone, particularly his own senators, with his move aimed at restoring the Senate's intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought.

In an internal memo sent out to party members late Friday, the national board says the constitution specifies that conventions are the "highest authority" in the party. Hence, a sense-of-the-convention resolution "is a powerful expression of the grassroots of the party that will be taken extremely seriously by the national board."

Caucus resolutions for this convention were reconsidered after last week's expulsion of senators. The priority resolution on democratic reform adds one element that Trudeau has previously opposed: consideration of proportional representation (PR) so that a party's number of seats in the House of Commons more accurately reflects its share of the popular vote.

It calls on a Liberal government to create an all-party public consultation process immediately after the next election to report within 12 months with recommendations for reforming Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system, including a preferential ballot system and/or a form of PR.

Just a year ago, Trudeau told a leadership debate he favoured preferential balloting but not proportional representation "because I believe deeply that every member of Parliament should represent actual Canadians and Canadian communities, not just political parties."

He said proportional representation would increase partisanship, since political parties, not voters, would select some MPs to ensure regional, gender and other balances in the Commons.

Priority resolutions are automatically guaranteed to make it to the floor of the convention for debate and a vote; others may not get beyond discussion in various policy workshops.

The convention is being held in Montreal Feb. 20-23.

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