OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau says he’s not about to curtail his unscripted, accessible approach to politics in a bid to avoid making gaffes.
And he thinks Canadians will forgive him the occasional foot in the mouth because they’d rather have a genuine politician who makes mistakes than someone who never errs by robotically reciting carefully crafted talking points.
“I’m reassured that, yes, even though every now and then I give a little extra fodder to my opponents to try and go after me, ultimately I’m right in trusting Canadians that they will understand that my focus is entirely on trying to serve them in the best and the realest way that I possibly can,” the Liberal leader told The Canadian Press in a year-end interview.
Since taking the helm of the battered Liberal party in April, Trudeau has made his share of gaffes. Most recently, he dismayed his supporters and delighted his political adversaries by appearing to express admiration for China’s Communist dictatorship while giving a rambling and convoluted response to a question at a fundraiser for female candidates.
But so far at least, Canadians appear willing to make allowances for the rookie leader with the famous pedigree. After being reduce to a third-party rump in 2011, the Liberals have rebounded in the polls since Trudeau took over, vaulting past both the NDP and Conservatives into a solid first place.
And the fluff over his China comment last month, in the midst of four hotly contested byelections, didn’t appear to have any repercussions at the ballot box. The Liberals were the only party to increase their share of the vote in all four ridings — dramatically so in the two Manitoba contests.
Trudeau believes the explanation is simple.
“I think Canadians are tired of politicians that are spun and scripted within an inch of their life, people who are too afraid of what a focus group might say about one comment or a political opponent might try to twist out of context, to actually say much of anything at all,” he said.
“And I don’t think that in our parliamentary system, which thrives on countering arguments and robust back and forth around debate, that we are well served when everyone is trying to be as bland as they possibly can be. I think Canadians want to get a feel for the people who will serve them … and, for me, I think that Canadians will trust people who trust them.”
Of course, Trudeau’s critics would argue that he doesn’t say much of anything either, even if he is unscripted.
He disputes that, arguing that he’s been taking “strong, principled, pragmatic” policy positions since Day 1 of the leadership contest: a focus on the economic challenges facing middle class families, supporting the takeover of Nexen by China’s state-owned energy company, more foreign investment, supporting the Keystone XL pipeline to take Alberta’s oilsands crude to the Gulf Coast, among other things.
But he says he won’t “short-circuit” the engagement of Canadians in the development of an election platform, which he’ll continue working on “right up until election day” — which, by the way, he’s not assuming will be held in October 2015, as required by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fixed date election law.
“We’re building a (campaign) approach that’s very much flexible. I think one of the aims we’re working at is spring of 2015,” he said, noting that Harper has ignored his own law in the past.
Democratic reform is among the areas where Trudeau has been quite specific in offering policy prescriptions. Among other things, he’s promised all Liberal candidates, including himself and other incumbent MPs, will have to win open, democratic nomination contests and he’s proposed several ideas for empowering backbenchers, including more free votes and less stifling party discipline.
He’s relatively cautious, however, about Conservative backbencher Michael Chong’s private member’s bill, which would give each party’s elected caucus members control over the fates of their leaders. Just 15 per cent of MPs would be enough to force a caucus confidence vote in a leader; a majority vote against a leader would force a leadership contest.
While he enthusiastically supports the aim of Chong’s bill, Trudeau acknowledges that giving caucus the power to turf a leader is hard to square with the move by all parties towards greater grassroots involvement in the selection of a leader. The Liberals have been in the vanguard of that move, opening up their April leadership vote not just to card-carrying party members but to anyone willing to sign up as a supporter of the party’s principles.
More than 100,000 members and supporters voted in the leadership contest, with more than 81,000 voting for Trudeau. Yet, under Chong’s bill, just 19 Liberal MPs (a majority of the tiny 36-member caucus) could decide to dump him.
“That’s certainly part of the discussions that are going to be had over the coming months as we look and debate Michael Chong’s bill,” Trudeau said, adding that he expects the issue will come up at the Liberals’ national policy convention in February.
“I totally support the aim of Michael Chong’s bill, which is to allow MPs to be strong voices for their constituencies as opposed to Ottawa’s voices in their constituencies,” he added, but as to the specifics: “I think there’s a really interesting debate to be held around that and I look forward to having it.”
Part of being a genuine political leader, warts and all, includes admitting when a mistake has been made, Trudeau said. He’s done that several times, for instance conceding that he shouldn’t have accepted public speaking fees after becoming an MP.
He makes no apologies, however, for spending little time in the House of Commons since becoming leader, choosing to spend more time on the road meeting with real people while NDP Leader Tom Mulcair wins plaudits for grilling Harper on the Senate expenses scandal.
“Canadians want parliamentarians who are serving them, Canadians want people who are strong voices for them and who are focused on solving the problems they’re facing … Part of it, yes, happens here in the House and holding this government to account but an awful lot of it also happens out across this country, meeting with people, listening to them, hearing them and building a better alternative, a better government for Canadians.”
Speaking of apologies, Trudeau argues that Harper could have avoided much of the political misery that’s engulfed his government for a full year over the Senate scandal if he’d just “chosen to come clean early on and apologize and answer fully and completely what’s going on.”
The big mystery in the scandal has been why Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and up to a dozen others in the Prime Minister’s Office, Conservative party and Senate went to such lengths to protect Mike Duffy. Wright eventually paid the former broadcast journalist $90,000 so that he could reimburse the Senate for questionable living expense claims while others, including Sen. Irving Gerstein, head of the Conservative party fundraising arm, bent over backwards to ensure that Duffy’s conduct would not be criticized in an external audit or subsequent Senate committee report, according to RCMP documents filed in court.
The answer, as far as Trudeau is concerned is straightforward.
“It was very much about protecting an important source of revenue for the Conservative party,” he said, pointing out that Duffy was a popular feature on the Tory fundraising circuit.
“Money is at the root of this entire scandal.”