National Column: PM lacks strong message

by Chantal Hebert

If one were to rate a prime ministerial news conference based on its shock value, the one Justin Trudeau gave on the occasion of his return to the House of Commons for the fall session of Parliament on Wednesday would not be worth grading.

Trudeau was last in the House in June. If anything has happened over the ensuing months to alter the prime minister’s thinking on some of the major files the government has punted to the fall, he was not out to share that over the 20 minutes he spent answering two dozen media questions pertaining to the fall agenda.

With upcoming negotiations on health-care funding and climate-change mitigation on the agenda, the federal-provincial front is expected to heat up over the next few months.

Trudeau’s season-opener was not designed to pre-emptively cool provincial passions.

Provinces such as Saskatchewan or Quebec, whose governments are becoming increasingly vocal in
protest over federal intentions on carbon pricing in the first case and health-care funding in the other, will parse the transcript of the prime minister’s news conference in vain for the shadow of an olive branch being extended in their direction.

Nor did Trudeau have a strong message to deliver to Parliament as it gets down to its fall business, except possibly to hint that MPs and senators should not expect to have more than cameo roles in the policy developments of the coming season.

In opposition, Trudeau repeatedly promised to make Parliament more relevant than it had been under his Liberal and Conservative predecessors. He must hope the House will be a more easygoing place than it has been traditionally, for he has just handed the task of keeping the government on track in the Commons to a parliamentary rookie.

He could have used the press conference to throw a bone to the opposition parties.

They have been calling for the peacekeeping mission(s) that Canada is expected to sign up for over the next few months to be put to a vote in the Commons.

But on Wednesday, the prime minister twisted himself into a pretzel to avoid providing a clear answer as to his intentions.

In theory, the latter should be a no-brainer. Jean Chretien introduced take-note parliamentary debates (which carried no vote) on Canada’s peacekeeping missions in the mid-1990s. On Stephen Harper’s watch, parliamentary votes on Canada’s military deployments then became a staple.

Retired Liberal senator and lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire – one of the Liberals’ go-to authorities on peacekeeping policy – is advocating a parliamentary debate and a vote on the issue.

Trudeau heads a majority government. The outcome of such votes would not be in doubt.

But they would raise the profile of the Liberals’ peacekeeping initiatives and the Conservatives’ contention that they are props in government’s campaign for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

While Trudeau leads a government that has never shied away from publicizing its actions, it is also no more averse than its predecessors to doing so selectively – sometimes hiding newsworthy developments in plain sight or dumping them in the public domain in the dead zone of a late Friday afternoon.

At his news conference and in question period, the prime minister had to defend his decision to negotiate an extradition treaty with China. After his visit to China, that change in Canadian policy was publicized – without fanfare – on the government’s website.

It had been a long-standing Chinese demand that previous governments turned down on the basis of Beijing’s poor human rights record.

On Wednesday, Trudeau gamely pointed out that Canada already had extradition arrangements with
other countries – most notably the United States – that uphold capital punishment.

He said his government would never agree to extradite someone who would, as a result, risk execution.

He did not get into the somewhat different U.S. and China takes on what constitutes the rule of law.

If there was a point to Wednesday’s news conference, beyond allowing the Prime Minister’s Office to tick off a box on its media relations’ to-do list, it may have been to lay out a Canadian rationale for the controversial extradition treaty negotiations ahead of the arrival in Canada of Premier Li Keqiang later that day.

He is the first Chinese leader to come to Canada since 2010. If the issue comes up over the course of the single joint news conference of the three-day visit, Trudeau will be able to respond that the question was asked and answered.

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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