If 2016 was Justin Trudeau's year of getting stuff done, then he'd better make 2017 the year of combatting cynicism.
That was pretty clear at the news conference the Prime Minister held to wrap up the fall sitting of the House of Commons, where he listed government accomplishments but failed to give meaningful answers about several things he still has to do – especially the things he promised to do differently, to dispel the whiff of cynical politics, such as political fundraising and electoral reform.
To be fair to Mr. Trudeau, he didn't get to talk as much as he'd like about the things he has done. Even critics must accept the list is long. He set out a carbon-pricing policy, struck a climate deal with eight premiers, approved the Trans Mountain pipeline and closed the Canada-EU trade deal initiated by predecessor Stephen Harper. And that didn't count early 2016 accomplishments such as a CPP deal, infrastructure deals and an assisted-dying bill.
Looking back, he was able to make a case that he did things. But looking forward, he didn't make a convincing case that he'll do things differently.
That was part of the inherent promise of Mr. Trudeau. He talked about sunny ways. He pledged a collaborative style. At news conferences, he refers to what Canadians expect from politicians. And he has news conferences.
But his answers are full of blah-blah. And although there's always going to be some of that in politics, it was remarkable when he used those dodges to talk about the promises he made to chase cynicism from politics.
He promised a new respectful relationship with First Nations, but he danced around two questions about whether he'd launch constitutional talks on their status before, on the third go, admitting that he doesn't want to go there. Then there's the non-answers about electoral reform. His promise that the 2015 election would be the last held under the existing first-past-the-post system was a way of reaching out to voters, especially younger voters, who felt the electoral system was unfair.
But he was vague, so someone will be disappointed. He promised consultations, as part of that new spirit of open government. But his Liberals now look as if they are trying to steer the talks to the voting system they want. And after town halls and committees, and now a touchy-feely website, Mr. Trudeau was still unable to say how he will determine what Canadians want, other than to say the government will have to "figure out the way forward that respects the broad range of views and the concerns that Canadians are expressing through many different ways." There aren't a lot of straight answers.
The most obvious problem is the cash-for-access fundraisers that have left his government repeating rote answers, and ignoring its own ethics guidelines.
On Monday, Mr. Trudeau took it a step further by admitting that people who pay $1,500 to meet him in Liberal Party fundraisers do lobby him about government decisions – but asserting that it's no big deal because they don't influence him any more than the many people he meets at other, unpaid events. And because he isn't influenced by anyone, he said, no one really gets special access. It's as simple as that, Mr. Trudeau said: He and his ministers cannot be influenced.
Of course, that makes you wonder why Mr. Trudeau issued a set of guidelines, Open and Accountable Government, that barred ministers from attending events that might provide an appearance that preferential access was provided in return for a donation, and explicitly forbid talk of government business at fundraisers. Mr. Trudeau and his ministers have shred those guidelines by attending fundraisers in private homes for $1,500 donors.
It's true, as Mr. Trudeau has said, that federal laws bar large donations – but the point isn't whether you can buy the PM for $1,500. It's whether you can get him, or Finance Minister Bill Morneau, to give you a personal hearing. Ordinary Canadians know they can't. And that breeds cynicism. So does Mr. Trudeau's flimsy defence. In 2016, he was able to tick off big accomplishments. But he's been waffling and dodging on some of those promises of a new kind of politics, and if doesn't find a forthright way to deal with them, there's going to be a lot more cynicism in 2017.