Cliché alert: Grits 'rolling up their sleeves' for Canada

Justin Trudeau dug repeatedly into his bag of clichés following the Liberal's Western caucus retreat this week. All part of the usual policy striptease, Chris Hall writes. But isn't it about time to flesh out what it is the party really stands for?

But when are they going to start to tell us what it is they stand for?

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters at a rally in Edmonton on Tuesday. He's rolled up his sleeves. (Dan Riedlhuber / Reuters)

The Liberals are "rolling up their sleeves" for Canadians.

We know that because Liberal leader Justin Trudeau dug repeatedly into his bag of clichés for that one when speaking to reporters covering this week's caucus retreat in Edmonton.

"We've had a good year, really rolled up the sleeves, drawing together a great team across the country, strong candidates, putting forward serious proposals for Canadians,'' he said on Tuesday.

Or when asked on Wednesday if he wants to win a majority in the 2015 election.

"The one thing we've heard across this country, everywhere we go, from Canadians we meet, is that they're tired of the approach, the tone, the lack of ambition of Mr. Harper's government,'' Trudeau replied.

"They want a better government, and we are rolling up our sleeves and connecting with Canadian right across the country.''

All right then. Forearms bared, nose to the grindstone, burning the midnight oil.

The message here is clearly that the Liberals are working hard, putting together a team of candidates, listening to what Canadians are saying, coming up with policies that respond to what they've heard. We get it.

That's not a bad message for a political leader to be delivering while Parliament is in recess and while most Canadians are in short sleeves enjoying summer.

It's probably also an unavoidable one for Trudeau whose party has just 37 seats, and needs its leader to spend much of his time working to rebuild and re-brand the Liberals.

The problem is that, the current batch of clichés aside, Trudeau has been saying the same thing for the past year. Coming out of the Liberal's caucus retreat last summer in PEI, he spoke about his commitment to "meaningful consultation and working with Canadians to build a platform'' that reflects their priorities.

But what are those policies? Trudeau isn't saying. Not until the election campaign begins in 2015.

That's the safe and cautious thing to do. It's what the Liberals did with great success in 1993 when they first produced — a week into the election campaign — their Red Book of policies, and swept back to power after eight years on the outside.

It's now standard operating procedure for virtually every political party: Slam the government. Promise to do things differently. But don't get into specifics.

"If we put out a good idea, it will be stolen,'' says one Liberal MP. "We put out a bad idea and we get hammered.''

Details can wait

Liberals say the only demand for detailed policy comes from the media. Voters, they say, appreciate that Trudeau and his caucus are taking the time to consult, and to get it right.

But there's a downside to being so cautious. And repetitive.

First, when Trudeau has announced policy — think legalizing pot, or demanding Liberal candidates support a woman's right to choose when it comes to abortion — he's kick-started a debate.

It's not all been positive. Trudeau was criticized for appearing to close the door on any candidates who oppose abortion (one wag noted that even the Pope himself couldn't run as a Liberal), but neither has it all been negative.

And that is despite the efforts of the Conservatives, in particular, to paint him as dangerously naive and not up to the job of leading the country.

Justin Trudeau joins Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne for a campaign stop in Toronto in May 2014 during the provincial election. His sleeves are rolled up there, too. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Another downside is the lack of clarity.

Public opinion polls suggest Trudeau has tapped into voter concerns when he speaks about the struggles facing middle-class Canadians.

But he still isn't saying how the Liberals intend to address them. Or how the Liberals believe government can help create more manufacturing jobs in central Canada, or how to address the persistent problem of youth unemployment.

The constant answer is wait until the election. It's also the answer even on other, more specific issues.

Trudeau has said, for example, that the Liberals would scrap the First Nations Financial Transparency Act but would bring in legislation with the same goals on transparency and accountability.

So how would it be different? He says it would be more focused on empowering First Nations. Any other details will have to wait.

Cynical folks

Liberals argue politicians of all stripes and in every country play some version of this policy striptease to try to gain some sort of advantage.

Since Trudeau became leader, public opinion polls consistently show the Liberals ahead among decided voters. The party's raised more money, and signed up more members. He has recruited high-profile candidates, and taken seats from both the Conservatives and the NDP in byelections.

But none of that means the party will necessarily hold the public's imagination on what it wants to do with power, especially when NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Stephen Harper are much more experienced, and have a proven grasp of policy.

Trudeau, himself, appears to be aware of the challenge ahead.

"People have grown incredibly cynical about politics. They are voting against rather than voting for a government,'' he said this week.

"We need them to realize that we can pull together and offer a solid plan for the future that actually inspires people to roll up their sleeves and be part of the political process."

And in the spirit of one cliché deserves another, there's no time like the present to begin laying out that plan.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.