Justin Trudeau goes face to face with Neil from London — and brings out NDP critics
Prime minister proves a sympathetic listener, but there's 'no easy solution' for tough times
If there was a lasting image of the interior of the Prime Minister's Office during the time of Stephen Harper, it was the scene from a Conservative Party ad showing Harper working alone on important paperwork into the wee hours, quietly and diligently.
Then on Sunday night there was Justin Trudeau, in the same office, but out from behind the desk and seated directly across from one of those fabled everyday Canadians, 10 minutes given to each to question and challenge the head of government. "Welcome to the prime minister's office," Trudeau said to each.
Trudeau has regularly done conspicuously different things, and now, if you are into juxtaposing imagery, there was this new gesture in prime time on national television.
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But where Liberal backbenchers subsequently tweeted about their leader's style for transparency and accountability, New Democrats instead wanted to talk about "Neil from London."
"Mr. Speaker, Neil from London asked the prime minister what he planned to do to bring back good jobs to our city. Like far too many, Neil lost his manufacturing job when the plant closed. It was a serious and important question," offered Irene Mathyssen, the NDP MP for the Ontario riding of London-Fanshawe. "People are looking for help, but the prime minister had nothing but empty platitudes and no real plan to revive manufacturing jobs. That is simply not good enough. What will the government do to rebuild manufacturing jobs and help people like Neil?"
Neil Piercey from London, Ont., was the third person into the Prime Minister's Office. Fifty-eight years old, Neil had worked in manufacturing before losing his job. He has used up his RRSP and now has little saved for retirement. He worried that he might end up homeless and on the street. The prime minister did not have a definitive answer for Neil's situation.
On Monday afternoon it was Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains who offered the assurances.
"Mr. Speaker," he said, "I can tell the member opposite that we will never ever turn our back on the manufacturing sector."
"Mr. Speaker," Bains added, "we understand the plight and the challenges and the concerns Canadians are facing."
Outside of an election, the last time a prime minister agreed to come into contact with everyday Canadians with the CBC's cameras rolling — Jean Chrétien in 1996 — it went so badly that the prime minister didn't dare do it again.
And Neil from London — not to mention Danny from Edmonton, an oilfield worker who similarly challenged the prime minister — is a reminder of why a prime minister might otherwise prefer to avoid the general public.
This time it did not go particularly badly. By 1996, Chrétien was a prime minister with three years in office and a record to defend. Trudeau is still just getting started, not yet responsible for the way things are.
But Trudeau's visitors were not shy and his performance was not perfect. He might have been better challenged here than he was in any of the debates during last year's campaign. Still, the Conservatives left it all alone Monday afternoon, not even lamenting Trudeau's "hang in there" suggestion to Danny from Edmonton. So it couldn't have gone that badly.
The courage of a prime minister submitting himself to the public might also be easily overstated. And at this point the mere act of doing so might constitute a relatively easy win. Trudeau appeared late last year in other town halls, which suggests his aides think he does well in such settings. If he'd really wanted to put himself at risk, Trudeau might have agreed to box 10 Canadians for 10 minutes each.
The prime minister and the people
Strictly speaking, a prime minister needn't really ever bother with the common folk. He employs any number of people who are responsible for telling him what is going on across the land, and regularly polling will arguably give him a better sense of the public mood than however many conversations he can find time for.
There's also not any obvious downside to remaining at a careful remove from the public — Harper was said to campaign in a bubble, but was not obviously punished by the electorate for doing so. And simply welcoming curious visitors into his office also won't save Trudeau's government if it otherwise seems to mismanage the country and its economy over the next four years.
But Sunday night's experiment in scrutinizing the prime minister can't be dismissed as mere spectacle either (even if the imagery can't be denied). That the prime minister should be made to face voters and have to deal with their concerns seems like the sort of thing that should happen periodically in a democracy — a prime minister might even be compelled to treat an everyday Canadian with more deference than he would an opposition MP or a mere member of the press.
Neil came away unsatisfied with the answers and Trudeau later pleaded that there was only so much a prime minister could do, but all that seems worth discussing. How did Neil from London get to this point and what can be done for him now? Those are worthy questions, perhaps given greater resonance than if an MP or member of the press had merely invoked the idea of someone like Neil.
A day later, the New Democrats spent four questions on Neil, and Bains was moved to explain what he was doing to help "people like Neil."
For a few moments on a February afternoon, the House of Commons was moved to consider Neil's situation. That may or may not do much for Neil, but it is also not nothing.