Justin discusses the middle class in his Toronto Star editorial

October 31, 2012

Those who think the middle class is thriving in this country should spend more time with their fellow citizens.

Canada’s extraordinary success is that we have bound together a vast country with a set of shared ideas and beliefs.  We have created a society where individual rights and freedoms, compassion and diversity are core to our citizenship.  But underlying that idea of Canada is the promise that here, all have a chance to build a better life for ourselves and our children. We provide our citizens upward mobility through economic opportunity. This is at the heart of the Canadian ideal, and it is under real threat. Our political leadership is not addressing it.

This squeezing of the Canadian middle class does not need to be explained to those who live it every day. But some commentators have their doubts. They point to modestly rising family incomes as an indication that the middle class is doing just fine. A closer look shows that family incomes in the middle have risen for one primary reason: the unprecedented entry, en masse, of a new generation of well-educated, hard-working Canadian women into the workforce. However, this was a one-time event, and begs the question: where is the next wave of growth going to come from? Because the bottom line is that individual middle class wages have stagnated for decades.

This is compounded by increasing income inequality, for which we see compelling evidence. We have had growth: in the past 30 years, the Canadian economy has more than doubled in size. But unlike times before, virtually all of the benefit of that growth has accrued to a small number of wealthy Canadians. The most recent data indicates that this trend is accelerating. At the same time, the middle class is carrying unprecedented debt levels and facing an increasingly inaccessible housing market, especially in cities like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.

No wonder, then, that I’ve heard from too many people across this country who are questioning whether their kids and grandkids will achieve the same quality of life that we enjoy today.

I have nothing against wealth; I believe that government has a role to play in creating it by supporting pro-growth policies. However, success comes with responsibility. Proportion matters, broadly felt economic security matters, and upward mobility matters. We are losing all of those. If we do not attend to this problem, we should not be surprised to see the middle class question the policies, and the very system, that values and encourages growth.

In short, our current political leadership has left the middle class out of the growth equation in Canada, and that’s a dangerous development for everybody.

The Liberal Party I want to lead would pursue pro-growth policies, and actively seek to broaden the positive effects of economic growth. The NDP has spent the last year pitting regions that have enjoyed robust growth against those that are struggling. I think this too is wrong. Canadians have had enough of divisive policies from the right. We do not need to see them matched on the left.

So what would a new Liberal agenda look like? First, it will be based on evidence, not ideology. This may be an old-fashioned idea in today’s political climate, but I believe that policy should be based on facts. The problems that middle class Canadians are facing are real and complex. They won’t be solved with simple, easy answers.

The solutions we propose will have to be affordable. We need a more inclusive approach to post secondary education – universities, technical schools, colleges, trades, apprenticeships. We need to support job creation through innovation and productivity growth. The job market remains tough, especially for young Canadians. Many people are working part time, or losing benefits and pensions, or making a lower salary.

Because capital is mobile and our domestic market is small, we need foreign direct investment and export growth to support job creation here in Canada. So Canadians need a more coherent and strategic position on trade and foreign investment than the “keystone cops” approach currently on display in Ottawa.

Running through this all is the continued need for a stable social safety net, essential to the middle class’ standard of living and economic security.

But nobody knows all the policies that will be required. The policies of the past have not worked. The global circumstances that Canada operates in are complex, and the problems we are facing are materializing in developed economies all over the world.  We need inventive minds working on this, reaching out for ideas to advance the interests of the broadest group of Canadians.

More importantly, I want to hear from you. I will spend this leadership campaign — and if successful, the following years — talking with you, my fellow Canadians, about your daily struggles and your hopes for the future. The new positive agenda that I want to build will be grounded in and give expression to your dreams for your families, your communities and our country.

I believe in a Canada that offers success to all of its citizens, a Canada where people who work hard can look forward to a decent standard of living, and better prospects ahead for themselves and their children. The people whose common values bind this country together have been left out long enough. It’s time we had political leadership in this country devoted to changing that.

Toronto Star