Justin Trudeau: The people's prime minister aims to be different

Prime Minister Trudeau can seem like the model of a 21st-century politician. But the politician does what the politician thinks is necessary to succeed at politics. Progress might be measured by how far and for how long Trudeau can maintain his openness with Canadians.

Ministers told open government idea was not just a campaign tactic, but a new way to govern

A bystander appears overwhelmed to be so close to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he talks with children at the Halifax Seaport farmers market on April 2. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Rarely has the notion of an activist government been so enthusiastically embraced. But then, perhaps to be 10 years old is to live without cynicism.

And yes, as Hannah Aris acknowledged after hugging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Halifax this weekend, he is rather pretty.

Hannah's primary interest was apparently Trudeau's policy on Syrian refugees. That he was within arm's reach was in keeping with Trudeau's apparent interest in being always present — in this case, among the people at a weekend market.

Though the Liberal platform made no mention of hugs, there was the promise of a different relationship between the government and the governed.

Trudeau is at home in the crowd during the election campaign last September. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"One of the things I remember him saying at one of our first cabinet meetings is that openness to Canadians and having a real conversation with Canadians had been the leitmotif of our campaign. And he said, 'I want you all to know this was not just a campaign technique.… We need to really talk to Canadians and, more importantly, we need to really listen,'" International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said in an interview earlier this year.

"And that sounds really simple. But it's really hard to do. Witness the fact that so many people in so many countries don't feel their government is doing it. I think that's something very powerful that the prime minister has brought to government in Canada. And is something that is, and will continue to be, really transformative in how our country works."

Freeland has posited that progressives need their own version of Ronald Reagan, the great communicator who, justifiably or not, has come to represent conservative ideals.

Justin Trudeau surprises Montreal commuters

8 years ago
Duration 2:16
Prime minister-designate poses for selfies at a Montreal Metro station the day after his stunning win

If Trudeau's predecessor could be distant and aloof, it was befitting an agenda that sought to limit the presence of government. Trudeau imagines a government that is and does more. And so, as if personifying that, he is a regular presence.

In the 10 days immediately following his government's first budget, the prime minister participated in nine local media interviews and two news conferences on Canadian soil. That sort of schedule might have much to do with the occasion of a budget, but it is also in keeping with the profile he has kept up: strolling into a Metro station in Montreal to greet his constituents on the morning after election night; turning the swearing-in into a public parade; eschewing year-end interviews for town hall forums; marking his 100th day in office with a Twitter chat.

Shortly after his election, he responded to a voter's Facebook post, and the official marking of that 100th day also included a special message for users of Instagram. Effusive and casual, Trudeau can seem like the model of a 21st-century politician (for a hint of his influence, peruse the black and white Trudeau-esque candids that now populate Rona Ambrose's Instagram account).

He is accessible and shareable (and he is blessed with good looks, an outgoing nature and the history of having been a public figure all his life). But truly transformative would be a move toward something like a 21st-century government.

In a speech last Thursday, Treasury Board President Scott Brison laid out the Liberal commitment to open government, a vision based on openness of data, information and dialogue. The thinking goes that information in the government's possession should be publicly available by default, that citizens should know why and how decisions are made, and that citizens should be involved in the crafting of government policy (this is, for sure, a government that is eager to be seen and heard seeing and hearing, invoking and pursuing "consultation" at every turn).

"One thing you have to understand about our prime minister … is that he's not guided just by doing that which is popular, he's guided by doing what is right," Brison declared. The Liberal commitment to openness and transparency, he said, "wasn't designed to win an election, it was built as a plan to inform the actions of a new government."

The 'different style of government'

These are no doubt the sorts of things a politician would say for the purposes of winning popular support. And Brison had just finished explaining how involving the public could foster such support.

But Trudeau himself has at least mused aloud about the possibility of doing things in a fundamentally different way.

"I think we're going to have to embark on a completely different style of government," he posited at a sparsely attended event almost precisely one year ago. "A government that both accepts its responsibilities to be open and transparent, but also a population that doesn't mind lifting the veil to see how sausages are made. That there is a dual responsibility in changing towards more open and transparent functioning, that really will go to a deep shift in how government operates."

Trudeau appears at the Toronto Pride parade while Liberal leader in 2015. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Doing what is right, engaging in a real conversation, a government and a public that are willing to deal openly with the realities of sausage preparation, these are all lovely notions. The accessible prime minister has also committed his government to "deliverology," a model of public administration that includes the measuring and reporting of a government's progress toward its commitments.

It only remains to be seen what that might look and sound like over the course of a mandate.

When criticism comes …

If the political debate is too often evasive and oversimplified, if governments too often withhold and obscure, it is not by accident. The politician does what the politician thinks is necessary to succeed at politics. Progress might be measured by how far one can deviate from the worst habits.

Government scientists have been unmuzzled, but the Access to Information Act is still awaiting reform. The prime minister has welcomed citizens into his office to ask him questions, but however many questions he takes from reporters he can still be heard not answering directly, or falling back on platitudes.

The questions will only get harder and, if the prime minister continues to be so present among the public, the chances of encountering a cynic will only increase. A hug might trend on BuzzFeed, but more instructive might be how willingly he greets a citizen with a complaint.