Magazine article Inroads: A Journal of Opinion

Justin Trudeau's Sunny Grip of Control

Magazine article Inroads: A Journal of Opinion

Justin Trudeau's Sunny Grip of Control

Article excerpt

Canadians have long been told that their prime ministers have too much power. Most recently the chafing control tactics used by Stephen Harper and Conservative political staff were a major factor in the electorate's rejection of his government. Harper's successor, Justin Trudeau, has insisted that he would be the one to reverse the trend of centralization. It is early days, but still useful to ask whether we are living a repetition of the trajectory followed by Trudeau's predecessors: you campaign for change, you make some progress early in your term, but gradually the thorny realities of governing take hold.

Optimism abounds when a new government replaces the old regime, especially when citizens and the media get caught up in the excitement of a fresh face. Trudeau's charisma is marketing magic, and his sunny ways are a tonic. A spirit of openness, empowerment, unity and optimism has swept through Canadian politics. Even those who cringe at the celebrity treatment of the telegenic Liberal leader ought to concede that the uplifting tone is a net positive for Canadian democracy after the acrimony of Conservative rule.

Profiting from Trudeau's remarkable popularity, the Liberals are doing some things right. Transparency is one of their overarching commitments. They invited open applications to fill political jobs. They publicly released the mandate letters that outline the priorities set for ministers, and an updated guide for ministers was posted online. They plan to make the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and ministers' offices subject to Access to Information legislation. Trudeau heralded the principle that ministers and not the PMO should make decisions when he announced that "government by cabinet is back."

The PM and his ministers have been made available to the media with astonishing regularity, seemingly unafraid to engage with journalists. Media advisories are issued to announce cabinet meetings, and the PM's itinerary is released daily. Ministers have been told to attend Liberal caucus meetings to ensure that they listen to MPs. Regular first ministers' meetings have been restored, framed as consensus-building exercises. One can almost say that the Trudeau Liberals have branded transparency, accessibility, democracy and good government.

Much of this is more a matter of public relations than public policy--the content in the mandate letters, for instance, came straight out of the Liberals' election platform. More substantial are commitments to strengthen Parliament by holding the political executive to account through more time for questions in Parliament, more power for the speaker, an end to abuse of omnibus bills and more autonomy for committees. The decision not to have a government leader in the Senate, who would normally be the one to take questions from senators, meant that ministers began participating in the Senate question period. Here we have to look beyond spin, given that in his first round of Senate appointments Trudeau announced that new Senator Peter Harder would be titled the government's representative. Accordingly, Senator Harder has been sworn in as a privy councillor and will be the one who introduces government legislation.

Thus, close ties between the cabinet and the upper house persist, and are prone to increase. Nevertheless, if the striking development of ministerial participation in Senate question period lasts long enough to become a convention, it holds the potential to significantly augment the institutional relevance of the upper chamber and provide a sorely needed mechanism to hold the executive branch to account.

Improved relations with the civil service are another way in which the tone of Canadian politics has changed for the better. The demeaning treatment of some bureaucrats and their unions by Conservative staffers made for a tense workplace environment. A more spendthrift Liberal government will ease such tensions, as will the code for conduct for political staff that was inserted into the guide for ministers. …

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