Richard French is a senior fellow at the graduate school of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa. He spent nine years as an MNA in Quebec.
With Donald Trump in the United States and Boris Johnson in Britain, why does the re-election of Justin Trudeau leave us all feeling so empty?
He is a nice enough fellow, a relief after the lugubrious Conservative government that preceded him. One cannot doubt the sincerity of his commitment to gender equality and protection of minorities. He is getting better behind a lectern. We can hope that recent revelations of his past may calm his ardour for sharing the pieties of political correctness. He is a masterful retail politician, an artist who surfs on the 30-second encounter, selfie included.
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He is not hard to like, but he is hard to respect. He leaves us hungry for some depth and some gravitas, and, it would seem from the evidence, he leaves his ministerial colleagues in the same state.
The first requirement for a prime minister in a Westminster system is to keep his cabinet and his caucus together, all more or less united and pulling in more or less the same direction. But our Prime Minister apparently does not talk to his colleagues; they have to deal with his staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, who apparently protect him from being unduly involved in his own government, even while they engage in the detailed policing of ministers and MPs’ speech and behaviour.
Whether one considers the SNC-Lavalin affair a matter of corruption or simply the product of a well-meaning but clumsy attempt to protect employment, it clearly establishes one sobering conclusion: the Prime Minister is out of touch with his colleagues, his government and his own staff.
In his defence before the ethics commissioner, he pleads ignorance of his underlings’ actions and, indeed, of the progress of the file in general. It is not, apparently, his fault if they were too keen in pursuing his objectives. Instead of their falling on their swords, he pushes them. So he just did not know. Another thing he apparently did not know is exactly how damaging such an admission is.
We’ve heard of ministerial responsibility. Mr. Trudeau is writing a new chapter in the unwritten Westminster constitution: prime ministerial non-responsibility.
The entire unedifying SNC debacle showed, first and foremost, that he had no idea of the person he had named as his minister of justice, no sense of who she was and how she thought and behaved. This is stunning.
It was not as if the crisis emerged in the months following her appointment. There was lots of time and many occasions for the Prime Minister to get to know her. An intimate knowledge of the character and personality of fellow politicians is the bread and butter of public life.
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Mr. Trudeau’s political heritage and his attractive persona may have absolved him of such a requirement during his political apprenticeship; if so, this was an unfortunate flaw in his preparation for higher office.
Advisers can palliate lack of substantive knowledge. High political office involves such a diversity of issues that no one can master any significant proportion of them. We pay our politicians to take expert advice and decide how to reconcile it with a myriad of other factors they must legitimately consider, certainly including public opinion, the global environment, the legislature, the caucus and so on.
But only the politician can evaluate the motivations, values, reflexes, abilities and pressures of other key political actors. Here, the Prime Minister has failed spectacularly.
Someone has to explain to Mr. Trudeau that he is not the head of state of a republic, whence he can embody the nation while floating above the gritty realities of politics; rather, he is the head of government and the captain of a team deeply and necessarily enmeshed in those same realities.
Once Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was humbled by a minority government in 1972, he recovered. He brought some important new personalities into his entourage. He went on to become one of our longest–serving and most influential prime ministers.
Justin Trudeau will never have his father’s intellect. He is indeed our Prime Minister, but it remains to be seen if he has the courage to become a true leader.
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