Justin Trudeau takes a lot of questions, but doesn't always answer

There is one potential caveat in the case for a prime minister's question period: it might expose the prime minister to more questions, but it won't necessarily result in more answers.

Pros and cons of a PM-only question period

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took every query during question period on Wednesday. His rivals weren't impressed with some of his answers. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The prime minister takes all the questions he wants," Tom Mulcair said Wednesday as Justin Trudeau made his third go at taking every query during question period, "but he does not answer any of them."

The NDP leader was aggrieved at Trudeau's response to a question from NDP MP Matthew Dubé.

Dubé had asked why a future prime minister wouldn't use the formal creation of a weekly prime minister's question period as an excuse to only appear at question period once each week. Trudeau's response hadn't quite answered that question.

The Conservatives then underlined Mulcair's point: putting a relatively straightforward question to the prime minister and then repeating it when he failed to answer directly.

"How many times has the prime minister been questioned by investigators?" said Conservative MP Chris Warkentin as he asked the prime minister about an ongoing investigation by the ethics commissioner into his Bahamian vacation. "The question is simple: how many times?"

"Mr. Speaker, as I have said many times, I am happy to work with the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner to answer any questions that she might have," Trudeau responded.

Here then is one potential caveat in the case for a PM's QP: it might expose the prime minister to more questions, but it won't necessarily result in more answers.

And that might be linked to one general caveat about Trudeau's leadership so far. Across his various appearances in public forums, media interviews, news conferences and question period, Trudeau is more present and talkative than any prime minister in recent memory. But he is still careful about what he says.

Question period not an ideal forum

In fairness, question period is not traditionally associated with substance and nuance.

The old joke goes there's a reason it's not called "answer period." But it's also only vaguely a place for questions. Generally, it's a time for invective and accusation (though there is much to be said for forcing the government to face such stuff each afternoon). In some cases, there are only charges to respond to.

'In this age of Twitter, hyper-partisanship, and sound bites, few politicians — and certainly not our current prime minister — would permit themselves to be drawn into such a frank discussion with a reporter.- Justin Trudeau, Common Ground

Question period is both an important tool of accountability and a theatric forum for displays of righteousness and condemnation. But it's also about supplying the evening news and social media with a decent clip or sound bite. Relatively few voters will watch question period live or in its entirety. 

In that regard, question period is like any other part of the modern political process, in which politicians and parties strive to control the narrative, often repeating simple messages in hopes of reaching a public that is only vaguely paying attention.

Repetition and simplicity

The old saw has it that when a politician is getting sick of hearing himself say something, someone in the audience is hearing it for the first time. In Brand Command, a 2016 book about political communication, Alex Marland cites a Conservative strategist who says communication needs to be "brutally simple" and "you have to tell somebody something 14 times before they'll remember it."

In difficult situations, the politician hopes to avoid making matters worse or giving a controversy new life. That might explain why Trudeau didn't want to get into the details of his interactions with the ethics commissioner. It would certainly explain Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's repetition of a few perfunctory lines of apology this week for overstating his role in Operation Medusa during the war in Afghanistan.

Put a word wrong in any situation and you could create serious or lingering trouble for yourself. More than three years after he made a stray comment about China at a fundraising event, Trudeau is still accused by Conservatives of being sympathetic to authoritarian tyranny.

So, in general, the successful politician is disciplined and careful. And often that sounds neither frank nor forthright.

O'Leary's lament for the politician

Before he quit his career in politics to go back to hawking toilet cleaners and the like, Kevin O'Leary tried to pitch himself as the anti-politician. And appearing on a Saskatchewan radio show in March, he targeted a recent interview he'd heard with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

"He spent eight minutes BSing. He never answered the question. I'm sick of that," O'Leary said. "If you don't have an answer, say you don't have an answer and you're working on it, but don't spin BS. He's got Ottawa-titis. And there's a lot of other politicians infected with that mediocrity. We have to fire all of them."

During his brief stint as a Conservative leadership hopeful, Kevin O'Leary was critical of how politicians seem to refuse to give straight answers. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

O'Leary was hardly a fount of substantive exposition in his brief time as a politician, but he didn't sound like other politicians. He was more biting and more outrageous. And maybe he put a finger on a real issue that could be exploited by another anti-establishment insurgent: that politicians too often sound like they're BSing.

Insofar as his appeal was the promise of change, Trudeau might have to worry about sounding like just another politician.

Trudeau's concern for modern discourse

Trudeau's public statements are not without substance and he can be expansive: consider his recent podcast sitdown with Jonah Keri. But his gift for message discipline was in evidence when he toured the country this year for public town halls.

Oddly enough, one benefit of a PM's QP is that facing three-dozen questions in a single go might make it more obvious when a prime minister insists on repeating himself or avoids answering certain queries.

Trudeau is also seemingly aware of the limits of modern discourse.

In his 2014 memoir Common Ground, he says it was his father's famous scrum at the height of the October Crisis — an "open, free-form exchange between journalist and politician" — that he carried in his head when he came to Ottawa.

Reporters Tim Ralfe, right, and Peter Reilly, centre, scrum Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on the steps of Parliament during the FLQ crisis in 1970. The question from Ralfe elicited the famous quote by Trudeau, 'Just watch me.' (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

"But times have changed," he wrote. "In this age of Twitter, hyper-partisanship, and sound bites, few politicians — and certainly not our current prime minister — would permit themselves to be drawn into such a frank discussion with a reporter. Rather than provide direct and candid answers, today's politicians typically use reporters' questions as jumping-off points to reiterate their party's message du jour.

"There is little place for my father's scrum style in today's Ottawa. For now, at least."

So Trudeau might concern himself with both the quantity and the quality of his responses.

If he is to be up during question period every Wednesday for at least the next two years, he will at least have plenty of opportunity to practise.


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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