Trudeau gets to the 'hopey-changey' stuff: Neil Macdonald

It's been great sport, not to mention rather easy, to sit back and compare the Trudeau government's actual governance to its gauzy, optimistic, open-and-transparent-and-principled mission statements.

The prime minister has made some significant changes in the past few weeks

Until very recently, many of the Trudeau government's actions didn't seem to match its principled and optimistic mission statements. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

It's been great sport, not to mention rather easy, to sit back and compare the Trudeau government's actual governance to its gauzy, optimistic, open-and-transparent-and-principled mission statements.

It was the same with Barack Obama after he won the U.S. presidency in 2008; once reality sank its fangs into his leg, he began behaving in many respects like his predecessor.

Progressives may have sneered at Sarah Palin's signature taunt — "How's all that hopey-changey stuff workin' out for ya?" — but down deep, as Obama triangulated, a lot of them began to wonder exactly the same thing.

So, when Justin Trudeau carried right on with that Saudi arms deal, authorizing shipments of war vehicles and weaponry to an abusive theocracy, the inevitable reflection was that the new boss is behaving like the old boss.

The comparisons, which Trudeau's inner-circle team resented, solidified after the government played fast and loose with figures in its maiden budget, then last month introduced a motion that would have effectively limited parliamentary debate, and Trudeau, impatient with procedural stalling, raced onto the floor of the Commons to grab the Opposition whip, and collided with a female New Democrat.

Meanwhile, some election promises seem to have become aspirational goals. Stephen Harper's "anti-terrorism" law, Bill C-51, remains unaltered. The government seems to be walking back its promise to "monitor and oversee" the agencies in Canada's secret world. The deficit landed at roughly triple the promised limit.
The Liberal government's first budget included a much bigger deficit than had been promised. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

CBC's "Trudeau Tracker" series, which attempts to monitor progress on the 200-plus election promises, has found the government has made a start on fulfilling a number of them, but has so far delivered very little.

Even promises of immediate action — lifting visa requirements for Mexican nationals, for example — have stalled, and other promises have been lost in the swamp of public consultation. This government likes nothing better than to consult.

But then, in the past few weeks, it did a few things that were truly and inarguably different.

It gave up its majority on the parliamentary committee considering a reform of the voting system, and gave a vote to both the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party, which originally had only observer status.

Surrendering control

This sort of move, a majority government voluntarily surrendering control, is almost unheard of.

Cynical speculation about Trudeau's motive is easy enough (the committee will never agree to anything, and actual reform is probably doomed, so giving up the committee majority will just allow Trudeau's people to blame the Opposition), and probably, most Canadians don't give a toss about the process, only the outcome.

But the fact remains that the government did the democratic thing with respect to democratic reform. There is no coherent or sensible argument to the contrary.

It also shelved the attempt to limit parliamentary debate.

And it has ended the obligatory round of applause during question period for any ministerial answer.

This may seem a small thing, but it is in itself a democratic reform.

The constant, applause during question period — by government MPs for a ministerial answer, and by opposition MPs for any question to any minister — is empty, meaningless and time-consuming.
The Liberals have decided to stop applauding each other during question period. (Chris Wattie/Reuters )

It actually eats into the business of holding the government accountable during that precious 45 minutes every day. (Yes, John Turner used to call it "Bullshit Theatre," and yes, the questions are often disingenuous and the answers talking-point boilerplate, but it's an institution, and means something.)

Never in our history has a government instructed its MPs to stop the public self-congratulation. It adds a touch of sobriety to the proceedings, and may actually make Parliament a little more meaningful.

It's hard to read Justin Trudeau. Past prime ministers I've known, in private conversation, have at least tacitly acknowledged, with a grin or an eye-roll, that some of their rhetoric was merely for public consumption.

Stress test

Not Trudeau. He truly does seem to believe the sunny ways stuff, and his staff sometimes seem zealous about it. They acknowledge they were slipping into politics as usual, and talk about having consciously decided to return to their principles.

My colleague Don Lenihan, writing on the National Newswatch site, declares that "something big seems to be unfolding here. This is the first real evidence that Trudeau is serious about a tectonic shift in our governance style."


These are still very early days, and Trudeau has a sizeable amount of political capital in his account.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mingles with the public after posing in a group photo with MPs, senators and parliamentary staff to mark the 150th anniversary of Parliament on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Eventually, the lug nuts begin to loosen and the wheels begin to wobble on any government, and it is how a prime minister governs under stress that tells the story.

As a political rule, leaders in democracies choose the path they believe will hold power and win it anew, and principles can be rationalized later.

Whatever the case, Trudeau is right now enjoying a certain amount of credit for what he has done in the past month, and deservedly so.


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.