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Liberals reject balanced budget and mandatory voting as official policy

The federal Liberal party embraced an expansion of affordable housing, building high-speed rail between Ontario and Quebec, and a basic guaranteed income as their three-day policy convention wrapped up in Ottawa Saturday.
A stagehand works on the stage in between presenters at the 2023 Liberal National Convention in Ottawa on Thursday, May 4, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The federal Liberal party embraced an expansion of affordable housing, building high-speed rail between Ontario and Quebec, and a basic guaranteed income as their three-day policy convention wrapped up in Ottawa Saturday.

But they rejected the ideas of campaigning on a promise to balance the budget or making voting mandatory.

The event was the first in-person convention for the party since 2018 and is likely the last before the next election. While that campaign doesn’t have to happen until the fall of 2025, it’s a minority Parliament and an election could come earlier if the NDP-Liberal supply and confidence agreement ever fails.

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Many Liberals saw the convention as their chance to re-energize as they move into pre-campaign mode.

“This is where it starts,” said Sachit Mehra, who defeated Mira Ahmad to become the Liberal’s new national party president after voting ended Saturday.

“In order to send more Liberal MPs here (to Ottawa), we’ve got to go back into communities and begin working now.”

He noted there are five byelections coming up soon, only two of them seats won by Liberals in 2021.

There are 24 new policies to guide the party ahead of the next campaign, though none of them are binding on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

He missed half of the convention attending the coronation of King Charles in London, but reiterated in his keynote address Thursday that he has every intention to lead the Liberals into the next campaign.

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In addition to affordable housing and a basic livable income, Liberals also re-embraced the idea of overhauling the electoral system itself. Trudeau promised to do so in 2015, but broke that promise when he said the political parties could not find a consensus on which system to use.

There is, however, no pressure from the grassroots for Trudeau to campaign on balancing the budget.

Liberals from Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s Montreal riding were behind a resolution calling for the party to develop a clear, costed proposal for a return to balanced budgets, and that it be part of their next election platform.

It pointed to the rising debt levels in Canada in recent years — levels driven up much quicker due to pandemic spending so the economy survived COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 — as well as the fact a balanced budget will be something the Conservatives campaign on in the next election.

It failed by a vote of 96 against to 76 in favour early Saturday morning, and not even Guilbeault threw his weight behind it.

He said he backs the recent budget of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, which shows deficits in each of the next five years. Guilbeault said that budget heavily invests in clean technology to keep Canada in the race during the clean tech industrial revolution underway.

“What I’m saying is that of course we want to to balance the budget and it’s important, but we also have other important things we need to do,” he said.

He said rejecting the motion does not mean the Liberals won’t be able to show a path to balance by the time the next campaign nears.

“I think we have we have a couple of budgets before the next election, so we’ll have all the opportunity to discuss this particular issue and obviously especially leading to the election,” he said.

Many Liberals felt the convention succeeded in its goal to regroup and recharge after a difficult few years, and they also left with no doubt Trudeau is the centre of this party.

But there were also signs that the list of Liberals who will one day vie to replace him is getting more clear.

On Friday night, two ministers who have been seen as possible front runners shared the stage with two keynote speakers.

Minister François-Philippe Champagne did a brief question-and-answer session with former prime minister Jean Chrétien. Both are from Shawinigan, Que.

Champagne’s designs on the leadership were fodder for a joked from Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay who introduced them to the stage.

“Between Mr. Chretien and François-Philippe Champagne, that part of the country has produced two of the best prime min-, politicians that I’ve ever met,” said MacAulay, to laughter and applause.

Madimba Tshibuabua, who attended the convention, said he was impressed with Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s appearance at the convention. He said he viewed her as someone who could lead the nation one day.

“I followed Mélanie Joly closely, and I think what she said was so amazing. She just showed me how involved she is in every single international initiative,” Tshibuabua said Saturday.

Defence Minister Anita Anand also delivered an energetic speech Saturday afternoon that some saw as her throwing her marker into the eventual leadership campaign.

Mia Rabson and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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