"As the head of government, the Prime Minister represents all Canadians and should be directly accountable to all Canadians," the Liberals' 2015 election promised. "We will introduce a Prime Minister's Question Period to improve that level of direct accountability."
So step right up, Canadians, and peer into that new wellspring of direct accountability.
Take a peek at the newly established Prime Minister's Question Period. In this special weekly event, one person, the PM, faces all queries. On Wednesday, it was mainly one question, over and over again, 18 times. But there was no answer. Every time, Justin Trudeau delivered a rote non-answer. Sometimes, he blathered on about something else.
The question was so simple. Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is investigating Mr. Trudeau's Christmas-vacation junket to a private island owned by the Aga Khan, complete with private helicopter transportation. It's not entirely clear if Mr. Trudeau breached ethics rules, but it is clear it was politically stupid, and the opposition likes to keep asking about it. On Wednesday, the Conservatives' simple question was this: How many times has the Prime Minister met with the Ethics Commissioner?
"I'm happy to work with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner to answer any questions she might have," Mr. Trudeau replied the first time.
But how many times did they meet? Mr. Trudeau wouldn't say.
Sometimes, he'd add that the Liberals are working for the middle class and those working hard to join. Somewhere in Mr. Trudeau's brain, it seems, there's a protocol that kicks in after he's repeated an answer many times and, click, the clip about the middle class plays. His most frank answer was eventually asserting he wasn't going to answer: "Canadians expect clarity, they expect consistency, and when asked the same question, I will give the same answer," he said.
Of course, the questions were a trap: Once a week, the PM takes every question for an hour, so the Conservatives asked one he wouldn't answer.
From the start of the controversy about the Aga Khan's island, Mr. Trudeau's strategy has been to say nothing except that he's happy to answer the Ethics Commissioner's questions. That's an old political strategy: Don't feed the story. So when asked how many times he has met the ethics commissioner, he says nothing.
But it would have more effective, in Question Period, for Mr. Trudeau to simply answer the question. The answer is probably that they have met once: Ms. Dawson told a parliamentary committee last week that she almost always starts an investigation by requesting a meeting and asking for information, and then ends it with a second meeting.
Ms. Dawson also told MPs that she asks those she meets to keep her inquiries confidential – but that's a request, not a rule, so the PM is at liberty to reveal anything. And no sensible person could argue that revealing how many times the PM met Ms. Dawson would blow a hole in her investigation. But that would mean departing from the say-nothing script.
Mr. Trudeau's refusal to do so gave the Conservatives a way of undercutting Mr. Trudeau's talk about open, accountable government. And it was pretty effective.
Those election promises of direct accountability, and a Prime Minister's Question Period, had resonated with some because it seemed as if Mr. Trudeau's predecessor, Stephen Harper, avoided questions. He often put up an MP, his parliamentary secretary, to answer pointed opposition questions with non-answers and combative red herrings. Those MPs often became figures of derision.
The Liberals said that the opposition was just trying to make the new Prime Minister's Question Period look like a waste of time. Mr. Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, tweeted: "MPs from all over Canada finally get a chance to ask the Prime Minister a question. They all ask about his Xmas vacation. It's May."
That, too, is an old political response: Accuse opponents of avoiding issues when they focus on your controversy.
But the Conservatives did make a point. It's not just the questions that count for accountability, it is the answers. Mr. Trudeau ran as the candidate of a new politics, and his heavily scripted answers clash with that promise.