Trudeau's Liberals use budget to refresh their brand: Chris Hall

From logos to campaign slogans to labelling their competitors as unworthy hucksters, building the brand is a critical part of engaging voters and, once they’re hooked, of rewarding their loyalty.

This Liberal government is looking to secure a different future

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a visit to meet with some families to discuss Budget 2016 at the Trinity Community Recreation Centre in Toronto on March 24, 2016. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

Like any organization with something to sell, political parties spend a lot of time on their own branding.

From logos to campaign slogans to labelling their competitors as unworthy hucksters, building the brand is a critical part of engaging voters and, once they're hooked, of rewarding their loyalty.

Under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, the Liberal brand became synonymous with progressive social policies and prudent fiscal management — a combination that  helped keep the party in power from 1993-2006.

A decade later — a period spent out of power and thoroughly out of favour with voters — the Liberal brand is back in demand.

But this isn't the same party as it was in the Chretien and Martin years. Having gone through two leaders who steered the party to historic lows in both seats and popular support, the brand is now tied to the image of Justin Trudeau and what he's selling.

"The Liberal brand never died," long-time Pierre Trudeau-era Liberal pollster Martin Goldfarb wrote in Policy Magazine a few months ago about that decade out of power. "The party never changed its colours, its symbols or its name."

But Justin Trudeau has changed how Liberals present themselves.

This week's budget is the latest effort to recreate a party that's more progressive and far less fiscally restrained than it was during those halcyon days of the late-1990s and early 2000s.

Agent of change

"Budget 2016 focuses on growth, not austerity," read this year's budget document, entitled Growing the Middle Class as though it is some kind of commodity.

"It includes measures that will grow the economy for the benefit of all Canadians."

There are still tax cuts for the middle class in this budget. And new benefits for families with children. But these are less rewards than inducements to draw in Canadians with promises of lavish spending.

Contrast that with the language In the Liberal budget of 2005, entitled Delivering on Commitments when the principal commitment was delivering an eighth consecutive balanced budget.

"Delivering on our commitments begins with an unrelenting dedication to sound financial management — to balanced budget or better, year after year," said then finance minister Ralph Goodale in his speech to the Commons.

Now, times were different then. Ontario still had a thriving manufacturing sector. There was no collapse in the price of oil to try to counter with fiscal measures. Markets overseas weren't soft or stagnant. 

But this Liberal government is also different than its predecessor of the same name.

For today's Liberals, balanced budgets are fine and dandy, just not yet or for at least the next four years.

Trudeau and his finance minister Bill Morneau want to connect with voters who see the role of government as an agent of change.

New Democrats won over

There is a pattern here. Trudeau's Liberals aren't waiting any longer to redress historic wrongs by committing billions of dollars to indigenous communities. They're starting it off in their first budget.

These Liberals aren't signing on to a climate change deal and then sitting back to see what the rest of the world will do. They're preparing to take extraordinary measures, up to and including imposing a national price on carbon emissions.

This is not a Liberal government focused on the immediate rewards, or on the here and now. This is a Liberal government looking to secure a different future.

"We're thinking about the very long term, so we're making investments that will help the next generation, and we need to do it in a prudent way," Morneau said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House.

Morneau doesn't like to use the word spending to describe the billions of dollars he's committed. He likes to say investments, even if the returns aren't guaranteed.

As for the Liberal brand today, Morneau says this.

"I would say it's growing the middle class, and it's investing in order to grow the economy for the future."

It's not exactly catchy, but it captures the essence of what these Trudeau Liberals see as the role of government.

It is probably also as progressive as any platform an NDP government might bring in. The first poll released this week after the budget suggested 59 per cent of NDP voters in 2015 would pass this budget.

Recreating a brand

It's also a direct repudiation of the Harper Conservatives who came immediately before, with their commitment to shrink the size government, to deprive Ottawa of the financial resources to undertake any kind of social engineering, or big vision thing.

The Conservatives still see balanced budgets as part of their brand. A product that sells to middle-class Canadians across the country.

That same poll, released Thursday by Abacus Data, shows 70 per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2015 would defeat the Liberal budget.

The problem for the Conservatives is that, after the 2015 election, it's the Liberals who have the bigger customer base, and at least appear to be tapping into a market of New Democrats who didn't buy the NDP's commitment to balanced budgets in the last election.

Trudeau may not be leading a brand new Liberal party, but he is leading a party that's recreating its own new brand. And, for now at least, Canadians are buying it.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was 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.