Justin Trudeau might be a TV star, but he's not quite living up to the West Wing
A playwright asks the prime minister to end the culture of 'talking points' and just give a straight answer
A few weeks before the Liberal government launched its mandate-tracking website — last week's much-derided attempt to tell the government's story — Michael Healey, a Toronto playwright who has scripted several portrayals of prime ministers, tweeted a clarion call for Justin Trudeau's administration to better explain itself.
"You have all this room politically. Act as radically as you promised you would. Give us the transparent government you promised. If you can't, tell us why you can't," he wrote. "Unmuzzle ministers, let them make mistakes in public the way...the PM did. End the culture of talking points and messaging.
Every time a minister retreats behind talking points, I just go why? Why would you not just speak directly to whatever it is?- Michael Healey , Canadian playwright
"If the job of clean water on reserves is tougher than you thought, tell us why. Tell us what you're doing ... Is meaningful reform to [the access-to-information system] impossible? Tell us why. If it's not, then give us meaningful reform."
"Speak to us," he begged, repeating that request five times.
In a way, that's what the government's new website is, an attempt to speak to the general public.
But it is surely not what a playwright would've done.
"I admit that my perspective is that of an outsider and that I might be naive," says Healey, who took on Stephen Harper in a play called Proud and considered Joe Clark in 1979. "That my desire for strong speech may have more to do with my impulses as a dramatist than as a political observer."
What Healey wants sounds like something from The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin's hyper-erudite and idealistic drama about the fictional presidency of Jed Bartlet.
Justin Trudeau should at least be familiar with its allure — he was such a fan that he agreed to appear on a podcast dedicated to the show this past July.
Healey's lament might get at something that links the mandate tracker with two of Trudeau's other grand moves toward a better approach to politics: his town-hall style forums with the general public and his creation of a weekly session of question period dedicated entirely to questions for the prime minister.
Carefully crafted political discourse
In each case, Trudeau has gone further than his immediate predecessor would have ever bothered or dared. But in none of those endeavours has Trudeau quite broken through the carefully constructed walls of modern political discourse — the tight, safe rhetorical space within which politicians try to limit mistakes and control the message.
His government, with periodic exceptions (Ralph Goodale and Chrystia Freeland could sometimes pass for West Wing characters), is still exceedingly disciplined, endlessly repeating a series of simple messages.
"Every time a minister retreats behind talking points, I just go why?" Healey says. "Why would you not just speak directly to whatever it is?"
It does not take a playwright's eye to spot this failing in the modern politician. But this is also, coincidentally, where the notion of real politics as theatre begins to break down.
"I have a hard time watching question period, first of all because it's so badly lit," says Healey, who is currently collaborating on a series about federal politics that has been pitched to the CBC.
Painful to watch question period
"But also because what happens in question period is completely antithetical to the idea of theatre because there is nothing surprising that occurs in those 45 minutes. The best you can hope for these days is that the opposition leader can come up with an original and surprising Simpson's reference."
The poorly scripted world of actual politics thus often contrasts poorly with the actually scripted world of fictional politics. That much, Healey notes, might explain the popularity of shows like Borgen and The West Wing.
When we lament "message discipline" and "talking points," we might be wishing that our politicians sounded more like real people. But, in doing so, we might be pining for something we've only seen in TV shows and movies.
What if the government tried explaining?
It is, of course, much easier to be a fictional president than it is to be a real prime minister. If Martin Sheen, acting as Jed Bartlet, flubbed a line or said something embarrassing, the director could yell "cut" and they could try another take.
But what if the Trudeau government nonetheless decided to be a bit more entertaining?
What if, instead of saying the commitment to balance the budget by 2019 was "underway with challenges," the Liberals simply explained, in detail, why they don't think it makes sense to prioritize spending cuts in the short-term?
What if the prime minister explained how he went from an open-ended commitment to electoral reform in 2015 to not wanting to move forward in 2017?
What if the government explained why it's not moving forward with a proper overhaul of the access-to-information system?
What if the prime minister was properly forthright about the complexity of climate change policy, resource development or improving Indigenous welfare?
A government that was truly confident in itself, its approach and its supporters might at least try.
'Complexity isn't a vice'
Granted, the prime minister's father was often too forthright. But that's not the only example Trudeau could look to.
When Trudeau appeared on The West Wing Weekly podcast earlier this year, he confessed that he'd watched a particular episode before taking part in his own leadership debates.
In the episode — "Game On" from the fourth season — Bartlet and his team are portrayed crafting sound bites and going through the meticulous planning that precedes a presidential debate. But Bartlet's triumph on stage is assured when he mocks his opponent's use of a talking point and challenges him to go beyond those "10 words" to properly grapple with the issue they're debating.
- Justin Trudeau takes a lot of questions, but doesn't always answer
- Trudeau tour: Showing up matters, but ditching talking points would require real political courage
"The president just reminded us that complexity isn't a vice," the president's press secretary says afterward.
That's easy for a fictional character to say. Perhaps the mandate tracker's next update could include an explanation of why reality can't come closer to fiction.