Trudeau tour: Showing up matters, but ditching talking points would require real political courage

Aaron Wherry looks at whether the town hall format could become a way for political discussions to get beyond repetitive talking points. Might politicians feel obliged to give better answers when a roomful of voters, not political rivals, is asking the questions?

Voters deserve more substantive answers when they ask questions of politicians

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall meeting in Peterborough, Ont., Friday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In the midst of questions about the export of military equipment, electoral reform, the treatment of veterans, the cost of pharmaceuticals and other matters, a middle-aged woman in Kingston, Ont., raised her hand, took the microphone and said she didn't have a question.

"Many of us are impatient for progress on issues that precede you," she said. 

But for now she wanted to thank the prime minister for simply daring to show up in the first place.

"It takes tremendous courage to come into a room where we were not screened," she said. "Nobody is reading you scripted questions and no one checked my background before I came here."

This would suggest an exceedingly low standard for courage in politics.

Trudeau gently pushed back. 

Trudeau answers carbon tax question

6 years ago
Duration 1:38
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question about carbon taxes at a townhall meeting in Peterborough, Ontario

That Trudeau made it through two days in the public realm without ruining his political career might suggest this sort of thing is relatively easy.

If 80 per cent of life is showing up, then Trudeau no doubt won some points this week by merely being present in Kingston, Peterborough and London, Ont., and various points in between.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau points to a member of the audience during a town hall meeting in Belleville, Ont., on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

When you are being chased by concerns about $1,500-a-plate fundraising dinners and vacations on private islands, it makes obvious political sense to be seen communing with the general public.

Democratically, it seems a good idea that a prime minister should regularly submit himself to questions from citizens in an open forum.

But it might also be the least that should be expected.

Better still would be if such forums actually improved the discussion of policy beyond its typically dull and partisan standards. And, on that count, it's too early to celebrate.

One question about the Aga Khan's helicopter

Only once was Trudeau asked about his use of the Aga Khan's helicopter during his Bahamian vacation. But that merely meant other topics — mortgage regulations, the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, agriculture policy — were given a moment or two.

Some of the questions he faced were less than withering (adorable children, it turns out, do not generally come ready to closely scrutinize the prime minister's record) and not many of the queries were sharply pointed.

I should probably just say thank you and move on, but I will point out that … it's not as brave as it seems to do this.- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

But the prime minister was still presented with several less-than-simple issues: the treatment of veterans, the costs associated with fighting climate change, the development of oil resources, deficit spending and the small matter of Donald Trump. 

His government is still new enough that he can respond with a vow to keep working on a stated concern or simply restate his commitment to do something. The Liberals have also not yet implemented so much policy that they're particularly easy targets for complaint and blame — the economy, for instance, is not yet obviously their fault.

But submitting himself to these forums now will at least make it noticeable if he becomes less willing to do so later.

Trudeau talks Canada and Trump administration

6 years ago
Duration 1:25
"I'm never going to shy away from standing up for what I believe in," Trudeau tells Belleville town hall.

Born into this

As the prime minister reminded that woman in Kingston, he's been talking with members of the public since he was a child "being dragged across the country" by his father. He seems at ease in the company of strangers, picking questioners out of the crowd and then smiling slightly and nodding along as they say their piece.

Trudeau seems generally capable of getting through an hour of questions without saying anything unfortunate, though his comment about phasing out development of the oilsands was an obvious wobble.

As Trudeau also noted, staying attuned to public sentiment is in a government's own interests.

And the public seemed interested in their own right. Crowds lined up to see him and anxious hands shot up every time the floor was opened for questions.

If the reception was also generally genial, the forums were all hosted in Liberal ridings in Ontario. A tour of rural Alberta might go differently.

Trudeau corrected on Phoenix misinformation

6 years ago
Duration 3:45
PM Justin Trudeau is asked about the problems with the government's Phoenix pay system, then corrected on his answer about the remaining cases.

How well do politicians talk?

In addition to the decisions a legislator or cabinet minister must take, a politician's basic job is to listen and talk and they generally don't lack for opportunities to do the latter.

How well they perform that function is debatable. Modern political rhetoric is generally based on simplicity and repetition: the restating of short generalizations in order to drive one's "message" to a distracted public, control the story and avoid unnecessary controversies.

All of that is understandable. But regular public forums might push the discussion beyond the patter. Politicians owe members of the public more deference than an opposition politician or a journalist. So why not take the opportunity to more fully engage with concerns and questions?

The prime minister is exceedingly capable of delivering his preferred message — quickly rounding on questions with familiar statements and assurances. There can be substance within those responses, but he can glide over matters of policy as opposed to diving in.

The specifics of a question about phasing out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry were ignored. A complaint about the federal deficit might have produced a discussion of the fiscal considerations rather than the restatement of the Liberal platform that the prime minister offered.

Trudeau has a defence of his decision to price carbon, but he doesn't quite explain why such a policy makes sense. He could likely go further in explaining why it makes sense to continue developing the oilsands.

In time, the novelty of these forums should wear off. If such events become more routine, the ideal result might be a fuller debate.


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.