The federal Liberals began setting the stage Friday for their second budget, sending out a senior cabinet minister to show why the country's middle class needs an economic and morale boost.
Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos didn't say what will be in the March 22 budget, but hinted the document will look at ways to train and re-train workers and spur private-sector investment in infrastructure and labour.
Duclos will make the same pitch in three cities next week to argue that the Liberals understand the economic fears Canadians have and seek to build trust with voters that the measures in the coming budget will work for those who believe they are part of the middle class.
If people feel comfortable financially, they are more likely to trust the government and the Liberals' growth agenda, Duclos said.
"Perceptions matter because they are a signal of middle-class Canadians' feelings towards the future, and anxiety, stress, uncertainty are key components in how Canadians assess their quality of life," Duclos said.
Since coming to office, the Liberals have repeatedly talked about helping the middle class, without defining the term.
Duclos said Canadians use a variety of indicators to define themselves as part of the middle class, including income levels — with data suggesting an income range of $50,000 to $150,000 — the cost of living that varies by city and their confidence about whether their children will be better off than they are.
That confidence, the Liberals argue, is dropping. Duclos pointed to polling data that suggest fewer Canadians identify as middle class. He also noted economic data that said median wages have stagnated over 40 years, despite rising since the 1990s, while income growth has been 1.7 times higher for the top one per cent of earners compared with the bottom 90 per cent.
The budget is set to prod companies into investing in their workers, along with public infrastructure, in a bid to boost job growth that would underpin the government's economic strategy and help curb annual budgetary deficits that are projected to be the norm for decades.
Duclos said skills development will play a key role in the budget.
Employment and Social Development Canada in its departmental report for the coming year said that it wants to make training agreements with provinces, valued at almost $2 billion a year, more flexible and more accountable.
A report produced as part of consultations on how to change these labour market development agreements, as they're known, repeatedly pointed to a need to make training programs available to those who aren't receiving employment insurance, which could cover a wider range of workers including aboriginals.
It is on the accountability front that the Liberals expect to land in a battle with the provinces over how to exactly measure success.
Duclos said there is a need to adapt skills training programs to the evolving labour market and suggested the government would add more money to the pot so there are enough "resources associated, of course, with flexibility."