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Parsing the politics of the ‘middle class’ and the Liberals’ new cabinet position

WATCH: Mona Fortier appointed new Minister of Middle-Class Prosperity in Trudeau cabinet

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tapped a point person for his party’s goal of growing the middle class.

Mona Fortier was named Minister of Middle Class Prosperity and Associate Finance Minister on Wednesday.

“Looking forward to working on making life more affordable for Canadians while representing Ottawa-Vanier,” she said in a tweet.

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Her appointment has sparked dialogue around the function of the new role — and why the Liberals chose to create it.

“It seems to be a very sort of politically-driven minister with an unclear set of responsibilities,” offered Conservative strategist Melissa Lantsman, vice-president of public affairs for Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

READ MORE: Who is in Canada’s middle class, and why some experts hate the term

Lantsman said the new position is part of the Liberals’ aim to make themselves “the party of the middle class.”

“But that in itself is inherently hard to define,” she said.

“There’s no definition on what the middle class is in Canada. And frankly, I believe that everybody sees themselves as part of it.”

While the term remains fuzzy, by one measure roughly 60 per cent of Canadians count as middle class.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defines it as those earning between 75 per cent and 200 per cent of the median national income.

For Canadians, that would be between just over $25,000 and $66,000, according to Statistics Canada.

Trudeau’s new cabinet will face ongoing challenges
Trudeau’s new cabinet will face ongoing challenges

Liberal strategist Richard Mahoney said he expects Fortier to raise the profile of issues pertaining to the middle class and champion the government’s progress on initiatives to support them.

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“There’s a particular policy challenge right now, not just in Canada but in all Western and developed economies, where we have a lot of wealth accumulation at the high end and a bunch of economic factors that challenge those in sort of lower and middle income,” said Mahoney, a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin and managing director of McMillian Vantage Policy Group.

“So I think a big part of her job is to put even more focus of the government on this as it goes forward … both externally and internally,” he said.

Mahoney said the government has already had successes to this end in its first mandate — noting in particular the expansions of the Canada Child Benefit and Canada Pension Plan — but Canadians aren’t necessarily aware of them.

READ MORE: Trudeau unveils major cabinet changes with Freeland as deputy PM, new ministers for diversity, middle class

You can’t build support for progressive income support measures unless folks know about them,” he said.

As a fully bilingual MP, Fortier could also help in delivering the Liberals’ messaging to French-speaking Canadians, Mahoney said.

Trudeau made sweeping changes to the cabinet on Wednesday, appointing a deputy prime minister for the first time and shuffling ministers in key portfolios, including Catherine McKenna, Seamus O’Regan and Ahmed Hussen.

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He said Canadians voted to “pull together the country, to focus on issues of economic growth for the middle class, to fight climate change and to keep Canadians and their communities safe.”

READ MORE: Here are the 7 new faces in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet

That is our focus and this is the team to do that,” Trudeau said, flanked by his 36 ministers outside Rideau Hall.

The Liberals were laser-focused on the middle class during the most recent election campaign — the phrase was even in the title of their platform — and a tax break for middle-income earners is the government’s first priority for when parliament resumes on Dec. 5.

Trudeau unveils new, larger cabinet with 36 ministers
Trudeau unveils new, larger cabinet with 36 ministers

Some of the commentary that surfaced on social media after the new cabinet was announced questioned why the government would appoint a defender of the middle class when, by definition, middle-income earners are not Canada’s most economically vulnerable group.

“How about a Minister of Poverty, Unaffordable Housing and Rising Consumer Debt, Mr. Trudeau?” said one Twitter user identified as Kathy Kells.

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As of 2017, 3.4 million Canadians, or 9.5 per cent of the population, live below the official poverty line.

One Twitter user suggested other issues could use a dedicated minister.

“Looking forward to the announcement of the Minister of Thousands of People Homeless Every Night Across Canada,” Gillian Kolla said in a Twitter post.

— With files from The Canadian Press and Andrew Russell, Global News