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Liberal convention to emphasize team, policy with debut of star recruits

Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau makes his way to the stage during the 2013 Liberal Leadership National Showcase in Toronto on April 6, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Justin Trudeau wants to be known by the company he keeps.

And at this week’s national Liberal convention, which starts Thursday, he’ll be keeping company with people whose intellectual heft, breadth of experience and economic credentials he hopes will help dispel qualms about his suitability to be prime minister.

The convention, Trudeau’s first since being crowned leader last April, will showcase some of the stars he’s recruited to run for the Liberals in next year’s election.

Among them: Jim Carr, president of the Business Council of Manitoba; Bill Morneau, head of the country’s largest human resources consulting company and chairman of a respected think-tank; and Jody Wilson-Raybould, British Columbia regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

All three will make their debut as prospective members of Team Trudeau at the convention, where they’re scheduled to give keynote speeches and take part in panel discussions.

They’ll be joined on stage by previously recruited stars: retired general Andrew Leslie, who advises Trudeau on military and foreign policy, and Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist who’s written extensively about the middle class squeeze and who won a hard-fought byelection in Toronto Centre last fall.

Their high-profile roles are intended to give Canadians a glimpse of what they can expect to see in the Liberals’ election platform and what a Trudeau cabinet might look like.

The emphasis on team and policy is similar to the strategy adopted by Jean Chretien in the 1993 election campaign, when he led the Liberals out of the opposition wilderness with the repeated refrain: “We have the plan. We have the people. We can make a difference.”

Trudeau’s personal appeal has already vaulted the Liberals, left on their death bed after the 2011 election, back into a comfortable lead in public opinion polls. But to sustain that lead in an actual campaign, he must, like Chretien, neutralize fears that he’s not up to the job of running the country — misgivings stoked by his own periodic gaffes and reinforced by relentless Conservative sneers that he’s nothing more than a pretty face with a famous pedigree who is “in over his head.”

In effect, Trudeau’s response to the doubters is this: would serious people of substance align themselves with a lightweight?

“I believe that he’s got great capacity and he’s going to prove it,” says Carr, who founded and led Manitoba’s business council for the last 15 years.

“He’s going to prove it by building a strong team, by formulating policy that resonates with the country.”

Carr is unique among Trudeau’s star recruits in that he actually has some experience in politics, having served as a member of the legislature and deputy Liberal leader in Manitoba from 1988-92. The others represent an entirely new generation of politicians, people willing to leave successful careers and join the brutish political fray for the first time.

It’s not as though they haven’t been warned about the perils of political life. They’ve seen Freeland battered in a bitterly fought byelection campaign, ridiculed for her high-pitched voice and drowned out by Tory hecklers in the House of Commons. And they’ve seen Leslie, a distinguished 35-year military veteran, attacked for billing taxpayers $72,000 for moving house upon his retirement, a benefit to which all vets with more than 20 years of service are entitled.

Nevertheless, they’re determined to become part of Team Trudeau.

“I don’t discount the fact that it’s going to be potentially challenging to be part of that world,” says Morneau.

But he adds: “I’ve had good success in my business career and I’ve got an opportunity to do something where I think I might be able to have a significant impact and those are the things that you face when you try to make a difference.”

Morneau, who serves as chairman of the board at the C.D. Howe Institute, is destined to become one of Trudeau’s economic mainstays as the leader attempts to deliver on what he vows will be the cornerstone of the eventual Liberal platform: improving the lot of Canada’s struggling middle class.

Toronto-based Morneau Shepell is the largest administrator of pension plans and biggest provider of employee assistance plans in the country. From his perch atop the company, Morneau has had “a bird’s eye view” of what’s been happening to middle class Canadians.

Workplace stress has doubled and financial stress tripled over the past four years, he says, noting that 80 per cent of Canadians don’t have a pension plan.

With growing volatility in the workplace forcing people to undertake multiple careers over the course of their working lives, Morneau says: “We need to enable people to be successful but I think that’s possible but only if we invest in education and training and the kind of infrastructure that enables people to be successful.”

While he advocates prudent fiscal management, Morneau does not agree with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “artificial deadline” to erase the deficit by next year, just in time for the election, in the face of tepid economic growth.

“You can’t just slash your way to growth, you have to figure out where to invest so you can generate growth. So I’m on a completely different page.”

But on the same page as Trudeau, who has issued a pre-convention video arguing that “real” long-term fiscal responsibility means investing strategically in infrastructure, education, research and support for new immigrants to spur economic growth, “not just (creating) the illusion of it at election time.”

Carr is also destined to become an economic adviser, drawing on the Manitoba business council’s success in finding consensus on difficult issues.

But setting national objectives requires a federal government that’s willing to engage with community groups and the provinces and Carr says that’s been missing under Harper, who’s held just one first ministers’ meeting in eight years.

“Stephen Harper has pressed the pause button on Canadian conversations … As Liberals, we now have a challenge and a responsibility to press the play button on the national conversation.”