Politics·Analysis

Justin Trudeau says he's made mistakes. Is that a mistake?

Justin Trudeau's recent acknowledgement that he's made "mistakes" in office only drew attention to how rare it is to hear a politician admit error.

Politicians seldom admit it when they've dropped the ball - mainly because there's little to gain by it

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a joint press conference with Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ontario on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau never promised to be perfect. "When we make a mistake, as all governments do, it is important that we acknowledge that mistake and learn from it," he wrote in an open letter to Canadians issued the day he was sworn in as Canada's 23rd prime minister. "We know that you do not expect us to be perfect."

Trudeau can at least argue that he has lived up to that expectation.

Last week, he admitted as much. "Certainly," he told a forum hosted by the Canadian Teachers' Federation, "I'm more than willing to admit that, like any good teacher, I've made mistakes and I have learned a lot through this process."

That prime ministers make mistakes is fairly self-evident. Great amounts of time and energy are devoted each day to cataloguing every possible example of failure or disappointment.

But public admissions of personal failure by politicians are still relatively rare — perhaps because there is relatively little to be gained from acknowledging the obvious.

A short history of leaders saying 'sorry'

It was considered news in 2015 when Stephen Harper and the Conservative campaign openly confessed that he was, in fact, "not perfect." This stunning revelation, offered in the waning days of the Harper government's nine years in power, seemed slightly desperate — a late attempt to make peace with those swing voters who were concerned about Harper's imperfections.

Eleven years earlier, with the Liberal government in trouble, Paul Martin declared himself "mad as hell" about what had occurred in the sponsorship scandal. But his willingness to express anger likely had something to do with the fact that he couldn't be blamed directly for any of the things he was mad about.

In 1996, Jean Chretien offered an apology of sorts for his government's failure to repeal the GST. He acknowledged that it had been a "mistake" for the Liberals to suggest they could quickly replace the GST with a better alternative, as the Liberal platform technically had promised. But he also offered a conditional apology to anyone who may have been led to believe that his government would simply eliminate the tax.

"If I and others left the impression with anyone that we will be able to do away with the tax without a replacement, I want to tell them that I am sorry," he said.

Liberal leader John Turner (left) and Conservative leader Brian Mulroney point fingers at each other during a 1988 federal election campaign debate. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

During a leaders' debate in 1988, Brian Mulroney acknowledged that he had not moved fast enough to "de-politicize" the process for federal appointments after a moderator confronted him over his government's record of patronage, contradicting his earlier criticism of political appointments made by the previous Liberal government.

A politician's acknowledgement of failure might at least cauterize an open wound, bringing an unofficial end to the discussion.

But John Turner — the Liberal leader Mulroney famously scolded in the 1984 federal election debate — still chided the prime minister. "Of course, Mr. Mulroney, there's nothing like an approaching election to make someone come to their senses," he said.

"It is true, we had some difficulties," Mulroney responded, referring broadly to the ethics scandals of his government's first four years. "And I had some tough moments. And I've still got the scars to prove it."

"But I suppose the question is, how did I respond to those challenges?" Mulroney continued, before moving on to list the various ways in which his government had improved how Ottawa works.

Trudeau's admission last week was couched within a similar argument — that his government is more than the sum of its mistakes. "It's very tempting in politics to focus on the negative," he said. "But we're on a path of making Canada better for everyone."

The downside of high hopes

Trudeau is unlikely to receive much credit from the Conservatives or New Democrats for admitting his errors, of course. Nor are all voters willing to forgive him, for that matter. If you care most of all about a government's ability to stick to its promised timeline for balancing the budget, you likely have long since given up on the Trudeau government.

Prime ministers probably shouldn't be expected to publicly flay themselves at excruciating length every four years (that's what columnists are for). But in seeking re-election, all prime ministers have to grapple with the reality of their time in office. For Trudeau, the task is magnified by the great expectations and the many promises he carried at the outset.

He also has presented himself as a different kind of leader — more open, more transparent, more willing to speak directly with Canadians. Such a leader would readily admit mistakes.

And he has. Trudeau apologized repeatedly for his charge across the aisle to break up some tomfoolery in the House of Commons in 2016. He said "sorry" after his vacation with the Aga Khan was found to have violated conflict of interest laws. He has acknowledged his inability to tell a joke. He has said he should have known about the "erosion of trust" between his office and Jody Wilson-Raybould.

It remains to be seen how much further Trudeau wants to go in enumerating his shortcomings and missteps. But since Trudeau needed to speak to those voters whose enthusiasm for him has dimmed over the last four years, last week's admission was perhaps something he needed to do. He might be inviting the unenthusiastic to look past their complaints.

To acknowledge one's own imperfections is perhaps to do the bare minimum. But it's likely better to have that conversation now, rather than to wait — as Harper did — until it's far too late to concede the obvious.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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