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I opened my leadership campaign last month with the argument that, if the Liberal party is to become a positive force for change in Canada, we need to give voice to the aspirations of our middle class.
Personal income for middle-class Canadians has stagnated for more than a generation. This deeply troubling development is masked by a rise in family income, due to the entry of a new generation of well-educated, hard-working women into the workforce. While overwhelmingly positive, we must be clear-eyed in understanding that this is a one-time benefit.
So, we’re left with the vexing question: Where will the next wave of growth for the middle class come from?
Public and private investment in science, and the innovation and productivity growth it spurs, will unquestionably play a major role. A renewed national commitment to build the world’s most educated citizenry is essential, as is a more strategic approach to our natural resources. We also need to keep costs competitive and make smart infrastructure investments.
But all of these, while necessary, will be insufficient to provide the opportunities we want for the middle class unless we get one big thing right. Canada’s economic prospects have always been tied to trade. We are a small market that must export and attract investment to create jobs and growth, and import to keep costs down and provide choice for middle-class families.
For much of our history, the only trading relationship that mattered was with the United States. From Laurier to Mulroney, it defined our politics in watershed elections that bookended the last century, and inflamed passionate debates about national identity throughout. As we grew more confident, Canadians arrived at the conclusion, supported by the evidence, that openness to trade is good for us. It expands our horizons, as well as our national wealth.
That was the 20th century. The 21st century is different. Trade remains a paramount objective, but we can no longer rely on the United States alone to drive our growth.
I am not one of those who believes the United States is in serious decline. Our relationship with our southern neighbour remains our most important, but we cannot afford to miss vital opportunities elsewhere. By 2030, two-thirds of the planet’s middle class will be in Asia. How we define and manage our relationship with Asian economies will matter as much to the Canadian middle class in this century as our relationship with the United States did in the last.
So how are we doing? Canada benefitted from being the first Western country to recognize the People’s Republic of China, but we have lost ground recently. The Conservatives kicked off their stewardship of the relationship with unhelpful saber-rattling, followed by a stubborn silence. Recently, they have made attempts at courtship, but China’s leadership has a long memory. Influence and trust is built through consistent, constructive engagement.
Further, the Conservatives have developed their approach to Asia, such as it is, behind closed doors. This is a mistake. Where is the leadership to explain to Canadians why this relationship is so important, to engage Canadians in the conversation, to make us aware of the opportunities?
Because we have failed to make the case for trade, Canadians are understandably anxious. Because we failed to ensure that the middle class participates in the growth created by trade, support for it has recently broken down.
For the rest of this article, please go to the National Post website: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/11/19/justin-trudeau-expanding-trade-with-asia-is-the-next-big-thing/