With a successful leadership race in his rear view mirror, Justin Trudeau has finally taken steps towards forming a platform for the Liberal Party. A preliminary look indicated that he is trying to take the Conservative party's old right-of-centre spot on the ideological spectrum.
Trudeau used his debut Question Period battle with the prime minister on April 15 to frame himself as the defender of the middle class. He called on the government to explain heightened tariff barriers, calling it a "$350-million tax on the middle class."
Then, in an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge in the same week, Trudeau continued to push for a smaller, and smarter, government. Though the Liberals rallied against "jets and jails" in 2011, Trudeau supports the procurement of fighter jets, believing it's a necessary asset for a strong modern military. He also used the opportunity to establish himself as a staunch federalist, turning the table on Conservatives for associating with soft Quebec nationalists -- albeit three decades ago. Moreover, he attacked the government's Economic Action Plan by saying the economy doesn't need government stimulation. A Prime Minister Trudeau would also fight for minimum government involvement in the economy and support rigorous free trade, according to the interview. These are all things a young Stephen Harper would advocate.
Trudeau is trying to find a new niche for the Liberal Party. The Conservatives have slowly progressed to the centre of the ideological spectrum over the years, and even as their own rhetoric pushes for a small government, they continue to spend and interfere in the economy. They haven't even managed a balanced budget in nearly five years. Trudeau has filled in the missing gap, saying he would like to see deficits go down and create a surplus, as the Liberals accomplished in the late '90s. While it's a nice narrative, there's still no word on how he would get this done.
While space on the right opens up, the Liberals' traditional left-of-centre home is now vacated by a socialist-less NDP. Nothing quells a radical party like a real shot at forming the government, and the NDP seems willing to form government at any cost.
Trudeau realizes that his party has been squeezed out of the middle since 2011 and, really, lost political significance. If he wants a good shot at the prime ministership, or more realistically, the opposition's benches, he's going to have to rely on more than flowy hair and a positive attitude.
Until now, conservatives have been quick to dismiss Trudeau as a hollow candidate. All looks, no substance. And to some extent, their criticism is spot on. For much of the leadership race, he refused to even talk about policy positions, stating he would wait until he won the leadership race before choosing his direction - although one of the few policies he did tout during the campaign was in support of the oil sands, again encroaching on Tory turf. His stance on decriminalizing marijuana will also appeal to more libertarian voters.
Now that he's leader, many right-wingers continue to toss him aside, yet they should be careful. The most dangerous thing Conservatives can do now is ignore him as he effectively steals their economic positions. Attack ads on his image and past record won't work when Trudeau's more substantive messages start resonating with Canadians, and even with small-c conservatives. The easiest way to defeat Trudeau would be for the Tories to reclaim fiscal responsibility -- and that goes further than simple promising to balance the budget by 2015. Conservatives are right when they say that the economy is the number one issue for Canadians, now they have to decide if they're the ones who will continue to deliver.
With fewer differences between the two parties, Trudeau's youth and vitality may come as an asset in 2015 when Canadians go to the polls. The economy will still be the main issue, but it won't matter who they vote for between the Tories and the Grits.
With seven years actively working to make Canada a more conservative country, Stephen Harper may find that his work will be for naught if a newly revamped economically-conservative Liberal Party takes the upper hand.
That is, if Justin stays on the right track.
This article was originally published in thePrince Arthur Herald