The messy reality of Justin Trudeau's promise of 'real change'

Better, or at least different, is apparently still possible. But, nearing the halfway mark of the Liberal mandate, it is proving to be messy.

The Liberals finally move forward with changes to the House of Commons

Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau holds up a party brochure at an announcement on fair and open government in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

At long last, the time for "real change" had apparently arrived.

Three months after the government released a "discussion paper" on parliamentary reform — after the Liberals were accused of tyrannical intent, ​after the opposition flibustered, after the government finally backed down a bit, and after the Conservatives threatened to tie up the Commons anew — Government House leader Bardish Chagger was ready to move forward.

"In recent days, I have been pleased by the constructive dialogue I have had with my Conservative and NDP counterparts on this issue," Chagger said last week. "Now, Canadians expect us to act."

The New Democrats promptly announced they were still opposed to the government's plans. After a weekend to think about it, Conservatives decided they were too.

Nevertheless, the opposition parties were willing to let the government put a motion to a vote, and it easily passed on Tuesday with Liberals in support. Elizabeth May of the Greens even voted in favour (if unenthusiastically).

So better — or at least different — is apparently still possible.

But nearing the halfway mark of the Liberals' majority mandate, change is proving to be messy.

How one measures the real-ness of it all may vary.

Liberals to move ahead with Parliamentary reform

5 years ago
Duration 8:08
House Leader Bardish Chagger on how and why the government intends to change Parliamentary procedure

Small changes to the way the House works

The Liberals' changes to the standing orders — the rules that govern the proceedings of the House — are both useful and imperfect.

A new rule to curb the use of omnibus bills might prevent particularly egregious legislation from slipping through, but an exception for budget bills will still give governments significant leeway.

Governments will be required to explain their use of prorogation, but the Liberals won't apply any statutory barrier to proroguing Parliament. (In 2010, Liberal MPs voted in favour of a non-binding motion calling on the government to prorogue only with the support of the House.)

A weekly session of question period devoted to the prime minister will continue by convention, at least so long as Justin Trudeau remains prime minister. But unwritten rules that provide a scant 35 seconds for each question and response and allow party whips to dictate who gets to ask a question will seemingly remain in place.

But adoption of the changes will tick a few campaign commitments off the government's to-do list.

Mulcair asks Trudeau why he's changing the house rules after abandoning electoral reform

5 years ago
Duration 1:23
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his democratic reform priorities

The promise and reality of reform

Commitments to political reform were integral to the Liberal campaign promise of "real change."

The results, so far, could best be described as mixed.

Most spectacularly, the Liberal cabinet walked away from the promise of electoral reform after a long process of vaguely considering the possibilities. (In this case, the mistake might have been making an open-ended commitment to reform in the first place.)

But of the dozens of other things that might be done, the Liberals are at least getting to some of them.

As promised, a special committee to review national security operations will be created. But there are lingering concerns about the committee's access to government information.

An initial proposal to strengthen the parliamentary budget officer was loudly panned, but the Liberals then rewrote their legislation to address some of the criticism.

That weekly prime minister's question period is a potentially significant new invention, but Trudeau's willingness to stand is not always matched by a willingness to respond to the questions asked.

Trudeau has refrained from appointing bagmen and cronies to the Senate, and the upper chamber has displayed a friskiness it has lacked in recent years, though that has ultimately made life more difficult for the government. (And sent the Senate's critics into a tizzy.)

On an ad hoc basis, Trudeau has been out amongst the public, taking questions and periodically being challenged. And the Liberal backbench has shown signs of life. With decorum in mind, the Liberals have stopped applauding each other during QP. 

The government has so far stopped short of including the kitchen sink in its budget bills, but putting legislation for a proposed infrastructure bank in the latest bill might have pushed the limits of decent practice.

On Monday, the government tabled changes to the access-to-information system, but the bill won't be debated until the fall, comes months later than expected and falls well short of overhauling the much-maligned law.

Dealing with the access system, and the federal government's culture of secrecy, looms as the next significant test of Justin Trudeau's commitment to change. 

Trudeau government backs down on promise to make PMO, ministers' offices subject to Access to Information Act

5 years ago
Duration 9:18
Instead, the government is promising to ‘proactively disclose’ more information than it has in the past

What does all that amount to?

Add up all those bits and pieces and you have a record of some change, if not quite a revolution.

The opposition parties see cynicism and ill intent. The initial push to amend the standing orders, including a proposal to fiddle with the opposition's ability to filibuster, was probably at least inelegant. And every platitudinous talking point, heavily redacted memo or ham-fisted manoeuvre undermines any claim to real change.

And then there might be questions of simple management.

Promised changes to elections law haven't moved forward. And while the Liberals have been keen to talk about a new approach to government appointments, they have failed to find a new chief electoral officer, ethics commissioner, lobbying commissioner or, after the disastrous nomination of Madeleine Meilleur, official languages commissioner.

At best, the Liberals have made a start to improving the state of Canadian democracy. At worst, they have already gone as far as they are ever going to go. And maybe, like governments before them, they will only backslide now, to be condemned for their anti-democratic practices before they too are replaced by a party promising change.

Avoiding that fate would be a real change.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

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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