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Richard French was a member of the National Assembly of Quebec and a cabinet minister.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on March 24.KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

Complaints about how prime ministers wield their power have been a regular staple of political life under the Parliamentary system. As long ago as 1924, Beatrice Webb was complaining, on behalf of her husband Sidney, a British cabinet minister, about prime minister Ramsay MacDonald’s “unlimited autocracy” in matters of policy and diplomacy. Prime minister Tony Blair had a central machinery notoriously disrespectful of the norms of Westminster governance; his arch-spin doctor Alastair Campbell was known for riding roughshod over ministerial prerogatives and departmental mandates.

Here in Canada, prime minister Mackenzie King dominated by indecision and indirection; Pierre Trudeau by his own brilliance and his alter-ego/adviser Michael Pitfield’s technocratic manipulation; and Stephen Harper played sheriff to his less-disciplined caucus members in a series of memorable fracases, until the anti-abortionists and kindred extremists toed the line.

Similar criticisms have been heard in Ottawa since the arrival of the current government. But perhaps there is a novelty here. I would argue that, while the centralization of power in Westminster prime ministerships always reflects the personal character and desire of the person in the office, in our case today, the person in the office does not want to dominate his government. He wants the Prime Minister’s Office to dominate it for him and is quite content to be its creature.

What we have in Ottawa is the Justin Trudeau Regency. A regency is defined as “A person or group selected to govern in place of a monarch or other ruler who is absent, disabled, or still in minority.” Now, Mr. Trudeau is neither disabled nor “still in minority.” He is, however, absent in the sense that he has abdicated the internal leadership of the government in favour of photo-ops, tweets, and press releases.

What does our Prime Minister stand for? Diversity and inclusion, yes. A late-ish conversion to action on climate change, probably. What else, apart from winning the next press conference? We know that he “has Canadians’ backs” because he tells us so incessantly, but we are never quite sure what that means. The Trudeau version of “deliverology” has delivered fiascos in passport administration, airport security, and immigration/refugee management, to name a few. Image is all; implementation is someone else’s problem.

So who has been “selected to govern”? It seems clear that a handful of folks in the Prime Minister’s Office are making the important decisions and they are seeing to it that the PM is not burdened with any of the more demanding, more contentious aspects of being prime minister. They are the regents in Mr. Trudeau’s regency. They seem to have a willing subject in the Prime Minister. They ensure that he is not unduly bothered by contact with anyone who might influence him in ways uncongenial to their preferences.

It is part of any Prime Minister’s Office’s job to shield its principal from the host of cranks, bores, fanatics and dreamers who seek to waste his or her time. This PMO has transformed that particular role into a blindly applied blanket reflex. One senior politician, who ultimately left the cabinet and Parliament, was systematically blocked from speaking to the Prime Minister despite repeated attempts to do so. And when former prime minister Jean Chretien called to speak to Mr. Trudeau, he was told he could not do so unless he explained to the PMO what he intended to say to his successor. Mr. Trudeau seems content to play frontman for this long-running power play, a form of governing which only barely survived electorally. The price we pay for that near-death experience is his purchase of a multi-year mandate from the NDP, in the form of new and improved programs close to Dipper hearts.

The government is drifting, its most talented members biding their time while dancing with more or less enthusiasm to the PMO’s tune. There is no rigour, there is no fiscal discipline and there is no obvious thinking about anything beyond the next press conference or media opportunity. The frictional costs of governing continue to erode the Liberal brand, and there is an omnipresent fatigue on the part of both the governors and the governed. To renew the appeal of the Liberal Party, new people with new ideas, unshackled by unelected apparatchiks, are required. Are there forces within the party cognizant of the price the Trudeau Regency is exacting upon the credibility of the Liberals?

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