National Column: Trudeau is at his worst in the House

by Chantal Hebert

Justin Trudeau does not much like the House of Commons and the feeling is mutual.

This is not a statement on the people who sit alongside or across from the prime minister, or the latter’s feelings toward them.

A majority of MPs owe their seats to Trudeau’s campaign skills and they are grateful to him for that. Most opposition members do not wake up at night to hate the current prime minister. On both sides of the Commons, some save their most negative feelings for colleagues of their own party.

No, this is really about the venue itself – a stage for which Trudeau’s affection seems inversely proportional to his love of rallies, parades of all kinds and even the most contrarian of town halls.

In opposition as in government, Trudeau has never quite managed to command the attention of the House in the way that he often does in an unscripted format. It may be that he never bothered to try.

Even in his early days as opposition leader, he did not have a lot of time for the mini-dramas that tend to grip the attention of Parliament Hill insiders.

While Thomas Mulcair systematically dominated question period, and earned kudos for his performance, Trudeau was content to achieve the required minimum to stay on the radar.

Today it is Mulcair who on the way out and Trudeau who is half way into a majority mandate. His House performance in his new role as prime minister has been consistent with his daily performances as opposition leader.

What agitates the Commons is often unrelated to what drives the mood of the country. That’s a disconnect that political leaders (and those who are paid to report on them) lose sight of at their own peril. But Trudeau is at risk of going to the other extreme.

Possibly because he earned poor marks for his spotty attendance in the House over his first year in office the prime minister has been more assiduous in question period since the new year. He is often there in body only.

Trudeau rarely engages with the opposition in a meaningful way. For the most part he speaks past his critics’ arguments. The attentive hearing he affords those who challenge him in town halls does not extend to opposition parliamentarians. When not on his feet, Trudeau can be the picture of adolescent boredom.

Trudeau leads by example. His attitude has filtered down the Liberal benches. They are filled with rookies who won seats for the first time in 2015. One of them – Bardish Chagger – serves as the government’s house leader. She has perfected the art of delivering unhelpful answers with a smile.

Another is Finance Minister Bill Morneau. If cardboard cut-outs could speak he might have one take his place in question period. On budget day he told me he feels that what happens in the Commons is for the most part destined to never make it out of the bubble. Like his leader he does not see the point of putting a lot of energy on his parliamentary game.

All of which brings one to the wide-ranging House reforms the Liberals have recently brought forward under the guise of what they call a discussion paper.

For the four opposition parties the proposals add up to a heavy-handed bid to erode their already limited capacity to hold a majority government to account.

There is a bit of verbal inflation at play here. Some of the government proposals used to be championed by Conservative MP Michael Chong as part of a bid to breathe more life in Canada’s parliamentary democracy.

But overall the spirit that seems to have presided over the drafting of the Liberal wish list is a desire to make the House function in a more convenient manner for the government.

In opposition, Trudeau would have fought many of the proposals tooth and nail.

The Liberals already enjoy the powers of a majority on the basis of a minority of the votes cast in the last election. It does not help that they apparently feel no obligation to seek if not unanimity at least a multi-party consensus before changing the way the House operates.

Only a governing party that is tone-deaf to the mood of the House would have initiated such a sensitive discussion in this way so soon after having led the opposition down the garden path on electoral reform. In this instance the tone-deafness is deliberate.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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