Justin Trudeau repeats himself

Four-fifths of Trudeau’s letters to his ministers is cut-and-paste. Let’s read it.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

As I try to figure out this new government, I have developed a working theory: You should pay extra attention when Justin Trudeau chooses to be boring. On Friday, the Prime Minister publicly released “mandate letters” to every cabinet minister, turning an eternal ritual of governments’ private business into public spectacle for the first time at the federal level. At last we can read what cabinet ministers have been told to do by their boss! At last we can hold them to their ambitions when, as will inevitably happen in at least a few cases, their hopes turn to ash. Fun!

What’s less fun is the letters. “We have promised Canadians a government that will bring real change—in both what we do and how we do it,” Trudeau writes to Lawrence MacAulay, the minister of agriculture. “We have promised Canadians a government that will bring real change—in both what we do and how we do it,” he writes to Mélanie Joly, the heritage minister. “We have promised Canadians a government that will bring real change—in both what we do and how we do it,” he writes to Scott Brison, the Treasury Board president.” For MaryAnn Mihychuk, the employment minister, this curve ball: “We have promised Canadians a government that will bring real change—in both what we do and how we do it.”

And so it goes, word for verbatim word, for the first 12 paragraphs of each minister’s letter. It’s only at the bullet points near the bottom that these letters start to rock ‘n’ roll. (MacAulay is advised to “help the sector adjust to climate change,” whereas Families Minister Jean-Yves Duclos is invited to “re-establish the federal government’s role in supporting affordable housing.”) But most of the letters aren’t bullets. Some 78 per cent of Joly’s letter appears, verbatim, in everyone else’s letter, too.

Possible explanations for this outbreak of boilerplate include (a) a particularly wonky form of Tourette’s; (b) a desire to put most of the country to sleep before we get to the good stuff; (c) the PM and his advisers actually think the repetitive stuff is worth repeating. I’m going to go with (c). So while many colleagues will focus on what changes from letter to letter, let’s pause here to look at what doesn’t. 

• “Real change—in both what we do and how we do it.” The Trudeau PMO seems persuaded that Conservatives are at least partly right when they blame “tone” for what befell the Harper government. This is a repeated message in the repeated language. “I made a personal commitment to bring new leadership and a new tone to Ottawa,” Trudeau writes, and then this: “We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency . . . time to shine more light on government . . . Government and its information should be open by default. If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians.”

And then, this extraordinary paragraph: “. . . You will be held accountable for our commitment to bring a different style of leadership to government. This will include: . . . meaningful engagement with Opposition Members of Parliament . . . As well, members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, indeed, all journalists in Canada and abroad, are professionals who, by asking necessary questions, contribute in an important way to the democratic process. Your professionalism and engagement with them is essential.”

Now, these letters come from Trudeau and his staff and appear over his signature, but it’s nearly a deadlock certainty that public servants were involved in the process, and one of them will have said: Prime Minister, if you evoke “a personal commitment” to this stuff and then tell ministers they “will be held accountable for our commitment,” you’re elevating it way beyond the realm of pious nostrum. You’re making it sound like you mean it. Repeating it 30 times in letters to 30 ministers is like tracing a line in the sand, then scraping it a yard deep.

• “Track and report on the progress of our commitments.” Next most prominent, after the transparency stuff, is the promises-made/promises-kept language. Here again there is multiple redundancy: Ministers are told their cabinet committees, as well as their own offices, should track progress against promises; and then again that “I expect that our work will be informed by performance measurement”; then again that “I expect you to report regularly on your progress toward fulfilling our commitments”; then, finally, that “Over the course of our four-year mandate, I expect us to deliver on all of our commitments.” Here again, idealism and political self-interest become nearly synonymous: Trudeau wants to be able to meet voters in, probably, 2019, with a bunch of check marks next to his 2015 promises. And again, by publicly repeating that goal, he is offering up a jumbo hostage to fortune if any promise proves impossible to keep.

“No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with”— Actually, it’s interesting here to try to guess how this sentence ends. Important relationships. Hmm. The one with . . . the United States? The United Nations? Hard-working families? Nope. Again in every letter, Trudeau elevates the relationship with “Indigenous Peoples” above every other in his personal hierarchy of priorities. “It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.” Carolyn Bennett, the responsible minister, will have noticed that this language is in Trudeau’s letter to each of her colleagues.

• “Observe the highest ethical standards in everything you do.” This is the Adscam language, the Duffy language, the Schreiber language, the saints-preserve-us-from-our-forebears’-sins language. The last long paragraph in each minister’s letter reminds the recipient, in great detail, of the obligation not to screw up on the ethics front: “As Minister, you must ensure that you are aware of, and fully compliant with, the Conflict of Interest Act and Treasury Board policies and guidelines. You will be provided with a copy of Open and Accountable Government to assist you as you undertake your responsibilities. I ask that you carefully read it and ensure that your staff does so, as well. I draw your attention, in particular, to the Ethical Guidelines set out in Annex A of that document, which apply to you and your staff. As noted in the Guidelines, you must uphold the highest standards of honesty and impartiality, and both the performance of your official duties and the arrangement of your private affairs should bear the closest public scrutiny. This is an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law.”

Expect opposition members to quote that last sentence back to Trudeau and his ministers any time one of them lands in hot water. “It’s legal” is not, in Justin Trudeau’s own judgment, a sufficient defence for poor conduct.

Never having read ministerial mandate letters before, my strong suspicion is that the Harper, Chrétien and Mulroney governments distributed letters that were similarly constructed. Every government comes to office with high hopes. Events, to paraphrase Harold Macmillan, can be a two-by-four. But the repetitiveness of the Trudeau boilerplate should not lead us all to skip over those passages. This is the stuff Trudeau deems so important, he says it repeatedly.


Justin Trudeau repeats himself

  1. Paul, some of the wording comes the recently updated Code of Conduct for all public servants. I believe that Code is in the public domain.
    Some the vagueness of the wording is similar to the wording given by middle managers to employees: assist in fulfilling the mandate of the department.

  2. Don’t be too harsh on Trudeau for the mandate letters, as it is highly unlikely he is capable of even that degree of banality.

    • Exactly. I’ve tweeted & emailed Justin re: taking care with this issue, & urged others to do the same. Charity DOES begin at home. We have Canadian kids going to school hungry. We have too many Canadians unemployed. We have too many Canadians who might go to the dark side encouraged by terrorists.

  3. After these Paris terrorist attacks, the Canadian PM
    must not rush the entry of 25,000 refugees from Syria.
    Who cares if their settlement goes beyond Dec 31’15.
    Safety first, thus slow and thorough screening is a must.

  4. So you didn’t see these letters in previous administrations.
    Think about that.
    Are you going to pick on the intros and skip the real meat for the next four years?
    There s no Harper legacy.
    The man left in a shroud of shame sneaking out the back door. In a year he will have meant nothing. Think Nixon.

    • Paul. Clear your mind. Shake off the PTSD. You looked shell shocked on TV the other night.
      Start fresh and clear and honest.

      • You really need to start reading stuff before you comment on it. Lordy.

        • You were dismissive of these letters, treated them as trivial.
          We already know what he thinks is important, but thanks anyway.

          • Paul-your words to JW are quite appropriate. If he did read it, he obviously didn’t understand it. I thought your article went almost too far the other way-overly providing support for the repetition.
            Back to JW. Harper indeed left a fine legacy that I hope Trudeau doesn’t screw up:
            -Since the near depression in 2008, Canada had the best job creation growth in the G7.
            -Before his tenure, the wealth of our middle class was mid-pack. In 2014 Canada had the wealthiest middle class in the G20.
            -Harper went into deficit spending like every other G20 country to stimulate the economy after the crash in 2008. But Canada was the first to achieve a balanced budget.
            My only hope is that Trudeau doesn’t behave as extremely as Wynne. She and her predecessor have developed our own home grown Greece-it’s called Ontario!! Hopefully Trudeau is less of a spend thrift and more honest than those two.

        • I was beginning to think I’d read the wrong thing. Or, there was a problem with MY reading comprehension. Thanks for reassuring me.

  5. But what font did he choose? And what point size?

    This is a very odd column. Buried in it is that Prime Minister Trudeau informs cabinet — or affirms with cabinet — that the relationship with indigenous people is the most important to his government. Of course, his actions have been bearing that out, but I found that nugget fascinating. Otherwise, I was wondering what exactly Paul Wells found so remarkable about the prime minister making sure each cabinet minister has possession of the same fundamental principles. I mean, I’m grateful he finally shared the content and not just the form, but that was strange.

  6. Jerome
    You said all that needed to be said about the purpose of this article. Trudeau repeats himself. Harper saved us all.

  7. I expect to see Canada and the world becoming a better place as a direct result of electing this newest Prime Minister. With any luck and careful consideration, even his harshest critics will themselves feel compelled to try to agree. That is asking too much to suddenly occur, a educated optimism shall prevail on the matter.

    Critics need to ask themselves how better they can become effective towards creating positive change towards the reasons that motivate them, constructive ideas presented are more useful than focusing on remaining locked within circular indifference.

    • JW,
      Are you a supporter of what the Ontario Liberals have done? From your tone I suspect so. God help us all if Trudeau ends up with Canada’s financials looking like Ontario’s-our children will never be able to bail the boat.

    • I suspect you thought his father was great too. He was the closest thing to an extreme socialist this country has ever had. When old Pierre was running Canada, mortgage interest rates hit an all time high of 21. That was a fun time!! And that was just one of his great legacies.

      • Despite what JT hopes he might accomplish, his father’s mismanaged terms of office and short falls will haunt Canadians forever.

      • “When old Pierre was running Canada, mortgage interest rates hit an all time high of 21.”

        And that’s not the worst of it. When he was running Canada US rates hit 21%!

  8. So, the thrust of the letters was that he wants to make sure that all his ministers are clear on his priorities, and he told them all exactly the same thing. Wow! What an unusual concept. Get everyone reading from the same song book. What a silly idea. Make sure they don’t all gallop off in different directions. How quaint. Reinforce basic team principles. Pshaw.

    C’mon Paul. Ridiculing this just shows you must be hard up for real topics,

  9. It’s not enough that Justin practically has an open door policy for the press but now they feel the need to put down his efforts towards transparency? He just proved that he sent the same message to all his cabinet members with the exceptions of the parts concerning each member. Is it the media doesn’t understand this new transparency or just wants blood? Oh wait! They’re scratching bottom for a story because they lost their plethora of garbage in this last election.

  10. Justin’s admirers sure aren’t used to hearing him being criticized in the press. I suggest that you all grow a thicker skin. You’re going to need it. Or, continue to whine about every slight and look like sissies. Your choice.

  11. I’m not a fan of this government, particularly our new PM, but this story seems like a non-factor to me. I’m sure that every PM sends similar canned mandate letters to his cabinet, so I don’t see much cause for criticism on this one.

  12. Paul Wells: I’m usually not overly concerned about Political-Correcting everything to death (quite the opposite)…but could you please consider not using conditions such as Tourette syndrome (or other medical conditions) as a punchline? My daughter already faces bullying and shame because of a condition she didn’t chose to get. We’ve talked about how she needs to find a way to defuse situations like that, educate, and tolerate the ignorance, fear, or mocking of others, but I would hope Macleans magazine could be just a little more sensitive to misrepresenting and mocking conditions like this to take a poke at someone. Thanks for reading. :-)

  13. My Son has a neurological disorder called Tourette. He is not a punchline!
    Perhaps be more careful with your words when putting down anothers.

  14. Tourette Syndrome is a neurological disorder not a joke to be used for the country’s amusment. I expected more from Macleans…

  15. Paul, your comment about his repetitive letters possibly being some form of ” wonky tourettes is not only just plain uneducated an offensive, it perpetuates the long standing stereotypes of tourette syndrome that so many including myself have been fighting against. Tourette syndrome in a neurological disorder that effects so many people in so many different ways. Especially children. It is not a punch line! If you or anyone reading this would like to be more informed please go to http://www.tourette.ca and next time please be mindful when you are considering using tourette syndrome as a joke in one of your articles. ..because I can attest to the fact personally that having tourette syndrome is not funny. And I think we would all agree joke are supposed to be. Or at the bare minimum. If you are going to use ts in your articles for your benifit can you at least make sure you get your information right and help us out too :) thanks

  16. I thought this was going to be an interesting read until I hit the fourth paragraph and saw your erroneous use of the medical term Tourette Syndrome (or “Tourette’s” as you wrote). Then I stopped reading.

    Tourette Syndrome is a medical condition. It is not a punchline. It makes me sad that you had to try and be funny by using this syndrome as the butt of your joke. I didn’t laugh, I was insulted.

    I suppose I should be grateful that you didn’t make a reference to Tourette’s being a “swearing disease”. Which is it not.

    Many people view you to be a professional journalist and I hope you will consider doing more thorough research or at least be more sensitive to certain groups in our society so that you are not misusing terms that leave you looking less than professional.

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