OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau doesn't put much stock in public opinion surveys that suggest the federal Liberal party vaulted into the lead once he took the helm 16 months ago and has stayed on top ever since.
"Polls don't mean anything, as we all know and as we all say," he said in an interview.
As he heads into a crucial year of non-stop campaigning before the next scheduled election, Trudeau prefers to rely on what he considers more reliable indicators that tell him the Liberals are on the right track to resume their title as the country's natural governing party after being left on their apparent death bed in 2011.
The enthusiastic response of Canadians everywhere he goes, the party's unrivalled success in a series of byelections, and the dramatic improvement in party membership and fundraising numbers.
"All those things together, plus the extraordinary candidates that we're drawing to us across the country, give us a sense that ... we're doing the right kind of work to earn Canadians' trust," he told The Canadian Press.
But just as between-election poll numbers can evaporate by election day, Trudeau acknowledges the even more tangible signs of momentum won't necessarily translate into victory a year from now.
"As much as we can say, 'Oh yeah, the Liberal party is doing well' and great, that's nice to see and nice to hear, we're still at only 30-some-odd seats in the House of Commons and we've got an awful lot of work to do to demonstrate that we are the alternative government, that we are ready to form a responsible government in 2015," he said.
That additional work involves redoubling efforts on the same sorts of things that have proved successful for Trudeau thus far: "building the team and building the plan," remaining focused on middle-class Canadians, improving the party's fundraising capability, staying relentlessly positive and sunny in the face of Conservative insinuations that he's an intellectual lightweight.
Trudeau has already scored some success on team building, recruiting some impressive candidates whose intellectual heft and breadth of experience are intended to dispel any qualms about his own suitability to be prime minister.
Among them are Bill Morneau, head of the largest human resources and pension plan administration company in the country, Jody Wilson-Raybould, British Columbia regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, former Manitoba Business Council president Jim Carr, retired general Andrew Leslie and former Alberta MLA Darshan Kang, among others. That's in addition to former journalist Chrystia Freeland and former Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan, who've already won seats in byelections.
"The team serves two purposes," Trudeau said. "The first thing is demonstrating that, yes, we have the kind of bench strength that people could see easily stepping into government and forming a good government for this country.
"But more than that, having great people step forward to run for political office at a time when, in general, there's such cynicism around politics ... to see politics drawing once again the best and the brightest is really an impressive and encouraging indicator that we are being able to break down the cynicism."
Beyond that, Trudeau said building the team is "part and parcel" of crafting the eventual platform the party will run on in 2015.
"To have someone like Bill Morneau weighing in on what Canada's pension policy should be, to have Adam Vaughan talking about how we have to address housing and transit, to have Jody Wilson-Raybould talk about how we're going to build a better relationship between the Crown and First Nations in this country, that's part and parcel and there's many, many more examples on the economic front, from people like Chrystia Freeland to Jim Carr to many others."
Over the past year, Trudeau has sketched out his priorities: post-secondary education and training, investments in infrastructure, innovation and research, making Parliament more open, transparent and democratic and empowering backbench MPs. But despite criticism that he's put little flesh on those bare bones, he said he won't be rushed into spelling out platform details a year ahead of an election and intends to continue consulting with experts and average Canadians.
And he was insistent that improving the lot of struggling middle-class Canadians will remain the cornerstone of the eventual platform, despite evidence that their incomes have grown to the point where, according to one study, they are now the richest middle-income earners in the world.
"What we will continue to focus on is prosperity for this country and prosperity for the middle class and creating an economy that has the largest number of good jobs for the greatest number of people. These are things that are just as relevant as they ever have been, if not more," he said.
"And quite frankly, if the Conservative government wants to continue to tell people who are worried about their children's job prospects, worried about their record levels of household debt, worried about their parents' health care and their parents' retirement, if the Conservative government wants to run on 'You should be grateful to us because you've never had it better,' that, quite frankly, serves our interests quite well.
"Because the reality is, when you listen to Canadians, when you engage with them across the country, people feel that even though the country is doing well, Canadians are struggling. And that's something we have to turn around."
Trudeau has been the focus of aggressive Tory attack ads from the moment he became leader, all designed to persuade Canadians that he is "in over his head."
Over the summer, Conservative ministers have continued the barrage. They've gone after Trudeau's support for legalization of marijuana, accusing him of promoting marijuana use to elementary school children. And they've insinuated that he courted the votes of potential terrorists by visiting a mosque in his riding.
The attacks are bound to intensify in the run-up to the 2015 election and, despite improvement in Liberal fundraising, Trudeau acknowledged the Conservatives still have "infinitely deeper pockets" with which to pay for infinitely more negative ads.
Still, he said he doesn't worry about the personal attacks and won't respond in kind. Indeed, he believes the Tory tactic is backfiring.
"I guess I would be despairing if it wasn't for the fact that everywhere I go just about everyone I talk to is tiring of this approach by the Conservatives."
Even those who have their own concerns about things he's said or done find it "somehow jarring" that a government would spend so much time attacking the leader of the third party with "such obvious and blatant distortions," he added.
"The kind of support and reinforcement I get across the country for my message of politics done positively and inclusively is an incredibly strong message and validation of the track that we're on."
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