There are a few conclusions you could draw from the recent revelation that Justin Trudeau has the worst Question Period attendance record (12/34) of any federal party leader.
The first would be the one I assume the Conservatives and NDP desperately want us to draw -- that J-Tru is some dainty little flower who's too flakey and spoiled to perform one of the few formal duties of his $200,000-a-year job, and too dopey and cowardly to match wits with the giant brains of monsieurs Harper and Mulcair.
A less scurrilous explanation, on the other hand, would be the one offered by Justin himself -- that he skips Question Period because it's a loud, noisy farce, that little of what's quote-unquote "debated" within matters outside the "Ottawa bubble," and that Canadians get a lot more out of meeting their leaders in person on the hotdog-and-Timmies circuit than from occasionally glimpsing a few contorted red faces on CPAC.
These duelling bits of spin present the standard either/or dichotomy for interpreting Trudeau's ostentatious breaks with orthodoxy. We're supposed to either swoon with refreshed delight that he doesn't take the Ottawa rat race as seriously as it takes itself, or furrow our brows in anger that he's not taking it nearly seriously enough.
I would imagine most of us can find speckles of truth in both perspectives. Rare is the Canadian indeed who does not regard the daily madhouse of Question Period as anything less than the worst embodiment of that famous quip about politics -- "show business for ugly people" -- but so is it also true that Question Period does represent one of the few forums in Canadian democracy where politicians are forced to publicly answer for their deeds (though "answer" may be a bit strong).
Of course, there's also a third, considerably less interesting explanation for Trudeau's chronic absences -- maybe he doesn't have much to say.
I've been reading Paul Wells' new book on the Harper administration lately, and Paul spends a lot of time discussing -- as Harper-watchers are wont to do -- the enormous role message control has played in the Prime Minister's rise to power. As leader of a party that had been historically plagued by gaffes and loudmouths, he writes, Harper quickly learned that loose political lips could indeed sink electoral ships, and therefore, every utterance, photo-op, and public appearance should have to pass a simple but strict test: are we scoring political points here?
When you consider some of the issues debated in Parliament over the last couple of months, it's not hard to imagine Trudeau's handlers using a similar cost-benefit analysis to determine his appearances there.
Take the Senate scandal. Here the Liberals are in the awkward position of being the only political party who supports Canada's upper-chamber as-is. No elections, no abolishment. Just stick with the status quo and maybe "improve the kind of senators" that get appointed. Considering support for an unaltered Senate is currently polling around 5 per cemt, that position is probably not going to be a vote-getter come election time. So why not avoid situations where it might be brought up?
Or how about free trade with Europe? In the 1980s, the Liberals opposed free trade with the United States, and in quite hysterical terms. Today they generally support the Prime Minister's Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union (certainly more generally than the NDP) but have also felt the need to affect the sort of petty, knee-jerk skepticism expected of opposition parties in our adversarial system. That's starting to cut the bologna pretty thin, however.
How exactly do you visibly support a government decision with an 80 per cent approval rating while simultaneously avoid giving any sort of credit to a government you've been constantly telling everyone is bringing Canada to the brink of some horrifying dystopia from which Quebec separatism will be the only escape? Saying nothing is a good start.
Then there's Keystone XL. Trudeau's favourable position on the pipeline is well to the right of most American Democrats, so much so that it reportedly shocked a great many of them when he admitted as much during a recent speech in Washington. (American liberals generally expecting progressives in this country to be somewhere to the left of Hugo Chavez.)
After much waffling, meanwhile, the NDP now appears to be solidly opposed. The ensuing political quandary represents the perennial dilemma of economically responsible big-L Liberals: keep progressive voters from drifting to the Dippers without pushing the sort of job-killing socialist nuttiness said voters tend to like. Once again, silence can be golden.
It's been obvious from the beginning that any electoral scenario ending with Justin in the PMO will require tightly following the Obama-circa-2008 script, in which an attractive young candidate earns the support of a weary nation simply by being a blank slate on which they can project their hopes and dreams, rather than because he has any terribly compelling, y'know, ideas and stuff.
In that sense, constantly being MIA at question period can be seen as Justin's answer to all those times Obama cynically voted "present" on contentious bills before the Illinois legislature. The slimmer the paper trail of statements and positions, the easier it is to plausibly deny being too leftist/conservative/centrist/whatever when the big moment comes.
At best, Trudeau can hold his tongue and merely be thought unelectable. At worst, he can open his mouth and remove all doubt.
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