Cross Country Checkup

Without space for diverse opinions, Trudeau's 'sunny ways' approach is 'status quo'

In 2015, Justin Trudeau campaigned on a different kind of politics — one that included a gender-balanced Cabinet. But as the SNC-Lavalin controversy continues, political scientist Melanee Thomas says it's clear he hasn't made space for different approaches.

Canadians want 'leadership that Jody Wilson-Raybould was showing,' says Melanee Thomas

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denied allegations that he, or his staff, placed 'inappropriate pressure' on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn't lived up to his "sunny ways" promises — and that's because he hasn't opened up the space for diverse opinions, according to political scientist Melanee Thomas.

"Instead of an old boys' club, what I think we're seeing displayed is a status quo club," Thomas, a University of Calgary political science professor, told Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue on Sunday.

Trudeau's success in the 2015 election was due, in part, to a campaign centred around a new approach to politics, which included a gender-balanced cabinet. But the SNC-Lavalin controversy has changed Canadians' outlook on that commitment, Thomas says.

"What it's shown is that sunny ways is still the status quo, and it also has shown that parity cabinets on their own wouldn't be enough to actually transform the operation of Canadian politics," she said.

As the SNC-Lavalin controversy continues, Wilson-Raybould says that she is open to further testimony. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press )

Thomas says the government's "status quo" approach is clear from comments by former principal secretary Gerald Butts and Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick, following Jody Wilson-Raybould's testimony that she faced "veiled threats" from top government officials, including the prime minister, to stop the trial of SNC-Lavalin on bribery and fraud charges related to contracts in Libya.

What I saw was a narrative that was presented about how leadership should work in Canada — how people should act if they are appointed to the federal cabinet.- Melanee Thomas, political scientist 

Butts said the PMO and Trudeau faced pushback from Wilson-Raybould on being shuffled to Indigenous Services.

According to Butts, she refused the position because the portfolio calls for administering the Indian Act.

"An Indigenous woman should be able to say, 'I don't want to be the one tasked with administering the settler-colonial state,' and I think that should be obvious," Thomas told McCue.

"What I saw was a narrative that was presented about how leadership should work in Canada — how people should act if they are appointed to the federal cabinet."

In a press conference last week, Trudeau blamed an "erosion of trust" for the breakdown between Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister's Office.

Melanee Thomas, a political science professor at University of Calgary, says Wilson-Raybould offers an approach to politics that Trudeau promised, but didn't deliver. (David Bell/CBC)

Different approach to politics

The reason change is difficult, Thomas says, is due to hyper-partisan politics in Ottawa.

While the system inherently pits one party against another, Thomas believes that's not what Canadians want.

Since resigning from her role as veterans affairs minister in February and during her testimony, Wilson-Raybould has spoken about speaking truth to power, and standing by principles versus playing politics.

That approach appeals to Canadians, Thomas says.

"I hear that they actually want — or desire — that kind of leadership that Jody Wilson-Raybould was showing, where there's principle and that cabinet ministers would have space to act on that principle."

"Unless that space is made, it's probably not going to amount to anything that's transformative,"

Written by Jason Vermes, with files from Sheyfali Saujani

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