You can tell an election is coming when all political parties start focusing intensely on what they call "the middle class."
The Liberals have been doing so, rhetorically at any rate, since Justin Trudeau became leader in 2013.
Now, at their first Parliamentary Caucus strategy meeting of 2015, NDPers are doing the same.
Addressing his caucus on Thursday, Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair spoke first about the new folks he has named to key party strategy roles.
Alain Gaul is probably the most important of those. He worked with Mulcair when the NDP leader was Quebec's Liberal Environment Minister. Now Gaul is coming to Ottawa to be Mulcair's Chief of Staff.
This injection of new blood, which includes folks such as Brad Lavigne who worked on Jack Layton's successful 2011 campaign (and wrote a book about it), should bring some seasoned professionalism to NDP headquarters.
It is likely the NDP's pre-election policy focus owes something to these new, battle-hardened advisers.
NDP priority: A 'stronger middle class'
When Mulcair turned to substance in his speech to colleagues, his first words were:
"Middle class families are working harder but falling further behind. Incomes are dropping and household debt is rising. Young families just starting out can't find affordable child care. Five million Canadians don't have a family doctor. Seven out of ten working Canadians don't have a pension. And all the while the gap between the middle class and the wealthiest few is at an all-time high and getting wider and for the first time in our country's history, current generations will be worse off than their parents."
In this space not too long ago, we wrote that the Liberal party also wrings its hands over rising household debt and stagnating middle class incomes.
The Liberals don't, however, talk about such matters as the dearth of family doctors or the fact that a huge number of working Canadians have no pensions. Those issues might be a tad too social-democratic for today's "new generation" and image-obsessed Liberals.
For the most part, the Trudeau federal Liberals (unlike their Kathleen Wynne Ontario cousins) have decided to keep their concerns and policy prescriptions at the level of inoffensive generalities.
As for specific NDP policies, speaking to the caucus Mulcair evoked those his party has recently announced: $15 per day child care, restoring Old Age Security at age 65 (from age 67 to which Prime Minister Stephen Harper moved it), a federal minimum wage and scrapping Harper's income-splitting plan (but keeping the Conservatives' new child care benefits).
Mulcair did not mention any specific proposals on pensions, although the NDP policy book does commit the party to work "with the provinces and territories to bring about increases to the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan benefit."
On this day, however, the NDP leader's policy specifics were few and only broadly outlined.
Mulcair mostly wanted Canadians to know that his party is all for the middle class.
His short speech was chock full of middle class references:
"...we'll invest that money in middle class families..."
"...middle class families are having a tough time making ends meet ..."
"...the NDP will give the middle class a little room to breathe... "
"...the NDP's priority is a stronger middle class..."
It is the kind of rhetoric we have heard from such successful Democratic Party candidates south of the border as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Both the NDP and Liberals are getting advice from Democratic strategists, and obviously they are taking it to heart.
A policy book that covers a broad spectrum
What is interesting and attractive about the NDP, though, is not this predictable election year, middle class rhetoric.
It is that, beyond the world of slogans and stump speeches, the NDP respects voters enough to make available a rather detailed book of policies.
The party says where it stands on everything from social policy to the environment, from infrastructure to industrial policy, from consumer rights to taxes, from poverty reduction to employment insurance, from crime prevention to human rights and peace.
No other party offers anywhere near this level of detail on such a range policy matters.
The Greens are full of detail on the environment (but so are the NDP).
The Conservatives offer not much more than their record -- fair enough, they've been in power for nine years.
As for the Liberals -- so far, all they've put in the window are a few vague nostrums.
NDP policies, on the other hand, are quite rigorous and detailed, and cover a large spectrum.
Take the aforementioned environment, for example.
Here are just two of the NDP's concrete pledges:
1. To adhere to "international agreements to reverse climate change, including those with binding regulations" and to demand "environmental standards in all trade agreements to which Canada is a signatory."
2. To rescind fossil fuel subsides while "protecting workers, communities and the surrounding environment," and to establish a national water strategy, in collaboration with First Nations and the provinces and territories, that would recognize access to safe water as a basic human right.
Among the NDP's many other concrete policy pledges are:
- to ban raw log exports in order to protect Canadian jobs
- to develop plans for high speed passenger rail
- to support cooperatives and the social economy
- to require the consumer finance industry to disclose the real costs of credit cards and other forms of credit
- to impose a moratorium on new genetically modified foods
- to establish a national health-care council to ensure the Canada Health Act is respected
Treating voters like adults
There is a lot there, and much more in what the NDP calls its "policy book."
In putting it all out, the party shows it is willing to treat voters like adults.
Mulcair's current rhetoric may be all about "hard-working middle class families," but beneath the rhetoric, and undergirding it, there is a rigorous and comprehensive set of realistic and tangible policy proposals.
Mulcair is a politician, and politicians know well that a great many voters are very busy with their own stressed and difficult lives -- too busy to consider what political parties have to offer on First Nations, immigration, industrial strategy or a myriad of other matters.
Too many voters -- perhaps the majority -- just want nothing more than to get through the day.
Ergo, Mulcair's laser-like focus on the beleaguered middle class.
There are some voters, however, who expect any political party that aspires to power to have substance as well as rhetoric.
Those folks should be encouraged by the depth and range, and practical realism, of the NDP's book of policies.
The NDP's heavy lifting on policy matters -- which others, notably the Liberals, have not bothered to do -- should count in the political arena. If it doesn't, then there is something seriously wrong with the state of political discourse in this country.
Karl Nerenberg will continue this multi-part series on the choices for the 2015 federal election with his final installment discussing the Greens .
For part one of this series discussing Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, click here.
For part two of this series discussing Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, click here.
For part four of this series discussing Elizabeth May and the Greens, click here.
Photo: flickr/Matt Jiggins
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