Opinion

Trudeau's long, respectful and empty recap of 2016: Neil Macdonald

The world is, or should be, a bit better place than it was last December. At least, that's the impression you'd get from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's year-end press conference Monday, which was short on details but filled with his customary talk of openness, optimism and respect — no matter the topic.

Prime minister talks around topics like possible new taxes and bending campaign promises

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's year-end press conference Monday was short on details about key promises and policies. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The world is, or should be, a bit better place than it was last December.

I know that because I listened to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's year-end news conference, where he reported that in the past year, he's taken "Canada's message of openness and optimism onto the world stage at the G20 meetings and at the United Nations in September and also during trips to China, Cuba, Argentina, Peru, Liberia and Madagascar."

So there's that. Countries with messages of closedness and pessimism were given something to think about, although not rebuked, because that would be judging, and that's not what Canada is about anymore.

I'm not sure I'd necessarily put carrying a message of openness and optimism into the win column, but a fair number of millennials no doubt nodded and beamed at the respectful, tolerant spirit Trudeau always conveys.

Their love for him has abided since the day he was sworn in last autumn, when he stood before the nation and declared, in a masterpiece of tautology, that "the future of our country is deeply wrapped up in a positive future for our young people," and that the "diversity that makes this country so strong is a diversity of views that will carry us forward."

Trudeau's optimism and talk of respect and inclusion has endeared him to younger voters. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

This new generation wants, we are told, less negative and more positive news. They turn away from old-fashioned media that insist on reporting unpleasant things from an unpleasant world, instead of constructive stories promoting inclusiveness and respect.

So there was lots of that Monday. No substantive detail to speak of, but geysers of respect and inclusiveness.

Asked, for example, whether he will deliver on his categorical promise that the 2015 election would be the last federal election ever held under first-past-the-post rules, Trudeau replied that Canadians want "robust and diverse representation," but that "any government is going to be faced on an important issue with a … broad range of views on any given issue and it is up to the government to figure out the way forward that respects the broad range of views and the concerns that Canadians are expressing through many different ways."

Which probably translates to a respectful "maybe, but probably not."

Tougher questions

To be fair to the prime minister, it's not as though the parliamentary press gallery exactly grills him.

It would be good, for example, to hear what he thinks of the shameful waiting lists in the paternalistic system of socialized medicine so fiercely defended by his health minister.

Canadians report waiting much longer to see a family doctor or specialist than residents in 10 comparable industrialized nations, according to a recent report from the authoritative Canadian Institute for Health Information. We are dead last; nobody bothers disputing that anymore.

Further, although Canada is among the top ten per-capita health-care spenders in the world, our outcomes are just middling. A slew of nations do better, Australia and the U.K. included.

Instead, Trudeau was asked in-the-weeds questions about the federal-provincial funding formula, which allowed him to bang on about the good and respectful dialogue his government is having with provincial governments ("our provincial friends"), something he stressed is a vast improvement over the previous government's attitude, which as everyone knows was terribly disrespectful and ignored health care for a decade.

(Stephen Harper did give the provinces a seven per cent annual increase, which Trudeau probably won't continue, but at least the decision will be respectfully conveyed.)

Instead of answering for the long wait times for treatment across the country, Trudeau spoke of the renewed co-operation between Ottawa and the provinces. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In his preamble, Trudeau talked proudly about his planned "price on carbon" — effectively a new tax — and when a reporter asked if he plans to levy another new tax on private health-care plans, here was the answer:

"We're engaged very much in pre-budget consultations, engaging with stakeholders across the country, engaging with economists and within, within our government as well on a broad range of departments, to work at where there are savings, where there are investments to be made."

Translation: another respectful "maybe."

Biggest regret

When a reporter asked the old reliable about the leader's biggest regret in the past year, Trudeau answered: "the deaths of two Canadians by the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines, which was something that obviously was personally difficult for me as I had the responsibility for directing and articulating the Canadian position…"

Robert Hall, left, and John Ridsdel as seen in a video uploaded to YouTube before the two were executed by the militant group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines earlier this year. (Site Intelligence Group/YouTube)

Sorry?

"Deaths of two Canadians by the Abu Sayyaf group?"

Robert Hall and John Ridsdel were slaughtered like lambs by Abu Sayyaf in the name of religion, and reportedly, the extremists rejoiced after their comrades hacked off the innocent men's heads.

That needs to be said, not glazed in the spirit of openness and optimism. If anything, Abu Sayyaf deserves retribution, not euphemism.

PM Justin Trudeau reflects on the low point of his year, the kidnapping and beheading of Canadians Robert Hall and John Ridsdel in the Philippines. 1:47

There was more, a lot of it focused on Canada's inefficient, sclerotic, expensive and jealously guarded divisions of power among the provinces and Ottawa — the same process questions that have dominated every prime ministerial news conference for decades.

Justin Trudeau, though, manages to say less than most of his predecessors, and takes longer to do it. Listening to him is like trying to drink cappuccino foam.

But he has all the respect, as Jackie Mason would say. You have to give him that.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this column erroneously reported that a Canadian Institute for Health Information study found Canadians wait between four and nine months for treatment from a specialist. In fact, those specific wait times were from a 2016 Fraser Institute study.
    Dec 13, 2016 6:03 PM ET

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.

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