Can Chrystia Freeland overcome the Liberals' 'elite' problem?
The Liberals worked to build a brand around the middle class — but the WE scandal may make that a harder sell
"We need a new New Deal," Chrystia Freeland said back in June 2013, invoking the reforms and support programs President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented in the United States in the face of the Great Depression.
This was before Freeland was elected as the Liberal MP for Toronto Centre, before the Liberals formed government in 2015 and before she was appointed to cabinet — and long before she became the finance minister who will end up playing a significant role in designing and defending a plan to rebuild the economy coming out of the global pandemic.
"Today, we are living through an era of economic transformation comparable in its scale and its scope to the Industrial Revolution," she said at the time. "To be sure that this new economy benefits us all and not just the plutocrats, we need to embark on an era of comparably ambitious social and political change."
If anything, the case for such ambition is only more obvious now.
But when Erin O'Toole — who became leader of the Conservative Party just days after Freeland became the minister of finance — began to make his argument against the Liberal government this week, he offered a twist on that idea of unequal advantage.
Watch: Erin O'Toole lays out priorities as Conservative leader
"If you want to stop insiders from getting ahead while you are falling back, you should be voting Conservative," O'Toole told a news conference Tuesday.
Freeland's words from seven years ago might now seem even more suited to the current political moment. But if Freeland and the Liberals are to successfully implement their own kind of new deal, they'll have to overcome the claim that they themselves have become members (or enablers) of the lucky elite.
In 2013, Freeland was promoting her second book, Plutocrats, which focused on the rise of the super-rich, the increasing concentration of wealth at the top of western societies and the hollowing-out of the middle class. Her survey of the situation included the concept of "crony capitalism" — the notion that those at the top have waged "successful political efforts … to tilt the rules of the game in their favour."
The ideas and trends that she wrote about became the backbone of the Liberal election campaign in 2015, with its signature promises to eliminate tax breaks for the wealthy, raise taxes on the top one per cent and provide greater support (largely through the Canada Child Benefit) to the middle class and low-income earners. Now, five years later, a global pandemic has exposed, exacerbated or generated a set of weaknesses and inequalities in this country that are crying out for renewed attention.
"We need a long-term plan for recovery and renewal that addresses the fundamental gaps that have been revealed by the pandemic," Freeland said in an email to Liberal supporters on Thursday. "We need more better-paying middle-class jobs in a resilient, fairer economy. And we need to keep building a future that gives everyone a real chance at success, not just the wealthiest one per cent."
One crisis, many victims
The potential basis for an agenda focused on equality, security and resilience is broad. The pandemic will leave behind profound economic damage that must be addressed. Significant doubts about the future of the oil and gas industry have been amplified. COVID-19 has dampened the career prospects of young people, has aggravated racial disparities and threatens to put further obstacles in the way of women in the workforce. It has exposed the vulnerability of low-wage workers and the fragility of global supply chains.
Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement has refocused attention on systemic racism. And the work of Indigenous reconciliation remains incomplete.
The argument for significant action now is that long-term economic security depends on maximizing the inclusion of all citizens and preparing for anticipated future shocks (climate change, another pandemic). Freeland's task will be to fit the pieces together within a defensible fiscal track.
The Conservative Party's response to this moment remains to be seen. But the last eight months also have undercut the Trudeau government's claim to be the champion for the 99 per cent.
A question of trust
Though Conservatives have not embraced economic inequality as a primary policy concern, they've found a group at which to direct their scorn — the prime minister and the members of his government. Through the WE Charity affair and recent revelations about lobbying conducted by the husband of Trudeau's chief of staff, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other Liberals have supplied Conservatives with ample material to paint a caricature of a governing cadre of out-of-touch elites.
In neither of those cases, nor in any of the previous controversies involving this government and questions about its adherence to ethics rules, has actual corruption been found. But in politics, that's a limited defence.
In 2015, when the Liberals won power, internal Liberal polling showed that Trudeau still trailed Conservative leader Stephen Harper when Canadians were asked who they trusted to manage the economy. But Trudeau had a 20-point lead when voters were asked who would do the most for the middle class.
The Liberals likely can't afford to surrender that advantage. But every ethical lapse risks weakening the government's ability to insist that it is focused on average families.
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O'Toole — as Andrew Scheer did before him — has been keen to emphasize his own middle class upbringing and lifestyle. When he accepted the Conservative leadership in the wee hours of Monday morning, O'Toole said that the country needed a leader with "real world experience."
Freeland's previous career in journalism was international and cosmopolitan, but she does not have the personal or family wealth of her predecessor, Bill Morneau. She frequently mentions her family farm in Alberta. Crucially, she has not been implicated in the WE affair or any other previous controversy. So Freeland could counterbalance (rather than exacerbate) the prime minister's own personal weaknesses.
The best response to accusations of self-interest will always be smart policies that address the real concerns of Canadians. But a government's ability to get a hearing for those proposals inevitably will suffer if there is a lingering lack of trust.