On Thursday, shortly after I arrived at the Liberal party’s biennial policy conference in Montreal, I checked out the swag table. Two years ago, in Ottawa, the merchandise booth at the party’s conference was decked out with memories. On sale were retro posters and buttons from campaigns of former Liberal party prime ministers – Trudeau, Chretien, King, Laurier, etc. There might have even been a few items with John Turner’s face on them, if memory serves. And a few feet away, the party had erected a large picture of a number of those men with a few holes cut out so delegates could stand behind it, poke their faces through and suddenly appear to be standing among the Liberal greats.
None of that stuff exists this year in Montreal. I asked about the buttons and the posters. The buttons? Gone. The posters? Also gone, and apparently though they sold many two years ago, they had a lot left behind at the end of that weekend – people just couldn’t be bothered to commit to carrying them around everywhere. You could probably make that last anecdote into some kind of allegory for the state of the party as a whole at the time, but even if were true, it might be slightly beside the point.
The point is this: In 2014, the only items up for sale at the merch booth were either those branded with the new Liberal logo – with the typeface for the capital ‘L’ having apparently been changed ever so slightly (though few probably noticed) – and one or two items with Justin Trudeau’s name on them, including a scarf. That is to say, all that recycling of past glories is gone, for now. Maybe that just means the Liberals are practical vendors, or maybe it means they don’t see the need to exploit pangs of glories past to hold everyone’s interest anymore; that Justin Trudeau is an almost perfect mélange of that nostalgia and modern political acumen, so all that retail nostalgia is now unnecessary.
By way of example, here is Justin Trudeau’s “focus”, as he put it Saturday afternoon during what was purported to be a policy speech: “It starts with the core liberal ideas of freedom and opportunity. The idea that no matter where and to whom you were born, you start free, and should have a fair shot at success. [...] To me, a strong economy is one that makes sure every Canadian has a real and fair chance at success. It means a thriving middle class. One that provides growing incomes and job opportunities. One that provides a real chance at joining the middle class for struggling Canadians.” The first part of that is boilerplate idealistic liberal rhetoric left over from as far back as the early 1960s, to appeal to whatever base the Liberals now have, wherever it is (not West of Ontario, anyway). And the latter is just plain old adoption for his own purposes now-familiar Conservative campaign language, the kind of words we’ve now been convinced are de facto must-haves for Serious Politicians in Canada.
There was a lot that followed – including a promise to building a “true partnership with Aboriginals”; a vague scheme to have a “national target” of 70 percent post-secondary education enrolment (the current average for men is already somewhere around 64 percent); a “strategic approach to trade”; and further investment in national infrastructure both to simply update it, and so it can one day cope with inevitable changes in climate and coming natural disasters, while at the same time committing that “tax increases are not in the cards and not on the table”.
None of that impressed Liberal opponents. The theory that there wasn’t actually much policy in Trudeau’s policy conference speech was a line delivered by both an New Democratic observer in Montreal and by a PMO spokesman via email from Ottawa – the former adding that so far, as far as the Conservatives can see, the only policy idea from Trudeau is “to legalize marijuana.” Well, fine, maybe so. But even then, the Liberals are probably already in line with two-thirds of Canadians. Which isn’t too bad for a start.
But both opponents were right about one thing: Trudeau’s speech Friday wasn’t exactly as it had been billed. It was, on the whole, light on actual policy. That’s generally an unforgivable error for the wonks and hacks waiting to pounce and parse every idea into submission for column inches. But for the vast majority of the room, it probably made little difference. There’s plenty of time for policy rollouts; realistically, it would be strategic suicide to deliver them too far in advance of an election, anyway. For now we’re in a time of policy trial balloons, and, even more importantly, still in an era of anticipatory advertising for the new Liberal brand, complete with its new little typeface change.