As he prepared to begin his second annual town hall tour, Justin Trudeau was asked whether he might appear before the ethics committee to answer questions about his family’s infamous time on the Aga Khan’s private island. Trudeau told CBC Radio’s Information Morning in Halifax that he didn’t think matters involving the ethics commissioner should get mixed up in partisan attacks.
It was then suggested that appearing before the committee might help counter any perception that he is out of touch.
“I think actually getting out and meeting with Canadians across the country, doing open town halls where Canadians get to ask me any question they want and hold their elected representatives to account is at the heart of what a democracy should be,” Trudeau said.
“That is exactly why I am so excited to be getting out of the Ottawa bubble.”
So this week he went to the people, while Conservatives complained he was avoiding accountability to MPs.
There is much to be said for getting out of Ottawa, particularly in January, when things are even more dark and cold than usual. But the prime minister might still spare a thought for life inside that bubble too.
Questions about Khadr, marijuana
His first two stops reminded that these forums are as much about the public’s chance to raise concerns as they are about holding the prime minister to account.
The questions are not always neatly put and it is rare that anyone gets to follow up, but there are useful challenges.
He was criticized for his violation of the Conflict of Interest Act and the government’s settlement with Omar Khadr. For the latter, he was heckled in Hamilton.
He was also pushed to consider whether all drugs should be legalized. In Lower Sackville, N.S., he was challenged on whether the government should make it illegal for anyone under 25 to consume marijuana.
Trudeau’s performance varies. He is very comfortable explaining his thinking on Khadr, and was prepared to explain why international students paid higher fees at Canadian universities. But two very specific questions — one about how the Canada Pension Plan applies to retired members of the RCMP and military, the other about Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen — received general responses about veterans and Canada’s role in the world.
Maybe none of those are new concerns. But what might otherwise be treated as an abstract matter of public policy resonates more deeply when an individual puts an issue to the prime minister directly, in public.
The most riveting moments of the first two stops involved the case of Abdoul Abdi, a former refugee facing the possibility of deportation after living in Canada since age six. At both forums, Trudeau was pressed to explain what the government will do. In Lower Sackville, it was Abdi’s sister who directly challenged the prime minister.
Abdi’s case has not yet resonated within the Ottawa bubble. Maybe that will now change.
Building a better bubble
These town hall events might raise a broader cross-section of issues than the average question period or news conference. And there is probably some basic good in the public having direct access to the prime minister.
It could even be argued Trudeau’s time right now is better spent talking about drug policy in Lower Sackville than about the Aga Khan’s island in front of the ethics committee.
Mind you, he also likely could have found time to do both.
The suggestion that he appear at committee was surely motivated by partisanship, but an appearance might have also made life inside the bubble a bit more relevant, even if just for a day.
It was not just openness that was a concern when Trudeau was elected in 2015, but the institution at the centre of the bubble: Parliament.
Trudeau’s Liberals have made some changes in that regard, but the extent and durability of the progress is debatable.
Most Wednesdays now include a question period devoted entirely to queries for the prime minister. But it is still generally an unedifying exercise — including unanswered questions and friendly queries lobbed by Liberal backbenchers.
Those backbenchers have shown signs of life, but their committee assignments are still at the whim of the party whip. At an NDP MP’s initiative, members of the public can file e-petitions, but Parliament has stopped short of providing a mechanism for those petitions to trigger debates in the House. And so on.
Getting out of the bubble is probably a good idea. But so is building a better bubble.