How often should Justin Trudeau be attending Question Period?

Hope and hard work ... and a dash of cynicism?

The Liberals seem a bit defensive about Justin Trudeau’s attendance in the House of Commons. Or so I glean from the party’s decision to send out this infographic to supporters late last week.

Pity that in defending their guy, the party felt it necessary to dismiss the entire idea of Parliament (at least as it currently is).

Postmedia has Mr. Trudeau attending Question Period about as often as the Prime Minister, but not as much as Thomas Mulcair, who has won some amount of praise for his performances in that forum. The Liberal leader’s attendance in QP was previously questioned in December at the end of the fall sitting. And this seems particularly relevant because of what Jack Layton did to Michael Ignatieff during the English-language leaders’ debate in 2011¹.

Back in December, Mr. Trudeau’s explained himself—go the six-minute mark of this interview with the CBC’s Evan Solomon—as follows.

My job is to propose to Canadians a better option for government. My job is to restore the confidence that Canadians need to have in these institutions that I believe [in] so much, that are right now a source of cynicism and anger and partisan attacks. I believe in Parliament, I believe in the institutions that we represent, but I also know that Canadians need to be part of the solution and too much time spent in this bubble in Ottawa is not good for how you govern the country…

I do ask questions and we have a great team that also asks questions, but the other thing I’m doing is actually engaging with Canadians who have turned away from Question Period, who have turned away from politics in general. And we need to reengage with the kinds of politics, the kinds of hope that Canada was always built on…

I’m engaging every single day by the Canadians I talk to right across this country. Canadians want to elect good people to be their voice in Ottawa and what we get in Ottawa is instead the Prime Minister’s voice and the Prime Minister’s voice in their communities. And we need to restore democracy and that happens not inside the bubble, it happens out across the country.

And so now there is that infographic. The subject of the email it went out with was “Parliament is important, and so is hearing from Canadians.” But in the fourth panel of that infographic the first part of that sentence goes a bit wobbly.

There we learn that, on February 6, while Thomas Mulcair was asking five questions in the House and getting the “usual Conservative non-answers,” Mr. Trudeau was speaking to 600 university students. In that case, the infographic asks, which leader was engaging more Canadians?

Presumably the answer is supposed to be Mr. Trudeau.

It is entirely possible, I suppose, that fewer than 600 people watched CPAC that afternoon and that no one ended up reporting on, or even tweeting about, whatever Thomas Mulcair asked about that day (for the record, he asked about education funding for aboriginals, the public service and the Fair Elections Act). But even then this idea would be problematic. At least in that we still continue to send MPs to Ottawa to do… something.

Presumably the Liberal leader does not think poorly of the Liberal MPs who were in attendance that day to ask questions of the government. Or maybe he does. Perhaps he thinks those efforts are futile. I suppose we could have a conversation about whether it’s worth anyone’s time showing up for QP. But I suspect if the Liberals proposed to pull out of QP entirely there’d be a fair amount of observers who would criticize the withdrawal. Why? Because even if we reflexively doubt its precise utility and even amid various ideas about how it might be done better, a full assessment would grant that it is still better that we have such a thing—a regular opportunity for questions to be asked of and concerns shouted at the government of the day.

One caveat: if a British approach to QP was adopted, as Michael Chong has proposed, party leaders might only be expected to take part once a week.

What I will look forward to, at the very least, is a future Trudeau government refusing to provide non-answers.

The infographic’s turn toward a certain kind of cynicism is wholly embraced with its final panel. “Let others focus on the political circus,” it says. Centre Block seems to be insulted by this.

This reminds me of Pierre Poilievre. Which is probably not what the Liberals were going for.

A few weeks ago, the Minister of Democratic Reform offered a resolute defence of the Fair Elections Act to an audience at the Chateau Laurier. The House of Commons was nearing the end of a two-week break. And the minister wanted to explain to his audience of swells that out there, beyond the Queensway, the people agreed with him.

Away from the noise around political Ottawa, everyone understands that this is common sense. We are just finishing two weeks away from Parliament, out in our communities. It has been refreshing to be reminded of the massive gulf between those in the political bubble and everyday Canadians on the ground.

Ah yes, the bubble. Where we’ve put our circus.

That Pierre Poilievre, a man who has spent most of his adult life on Parliament Hill, would say this was kind of hilarious. More hilarious: That he would say this a month after his party refused an NDP request to hold hearings across the country on the Fair Elections Act—“We need to get out of the Ottawa bubble and hear from Canadians that will be most affected by this bill,” the NDP’s David Christopherson had said. In response to Mr. Poilievre, NDP critic Craig Scott sent out a statement that concluded, “When you spend too much time in the Ottawa bubble, you forget that you represent all Canadians, not the interest of your own political party.”

To maintain one’s credibility as a federal politician, you’ll understand, one must periodically vocalize one’s disenchantment with this bubble.

That a certain kind of bubble exists is undeniable. Ottawa is a bit like a college town in its insularity. But the bubble exists for a reason, it’s where we send our MPs to do the sorts of things that are required to govern a country. And a certain amount of insularity is fine. Indeed, in electing MPs, we entrust them to do that work on our behalf and take care of matters so that we don’t have to².

The bubble is obviously not beyond criticism. And there is much to be said for maintaining one’s perspective and representatives staying in touch with those they represent. But whatever ails said bubble it is not much improved by lazy dismissals seemingly meant to flatteringly demonstrate one’s separation from its apparently corrupting influence. That’s cheap populism. If the bubble is lacking in perspective somehow, some amount of blame would seem to be with its 308 primary residents. And when those residents lament for the bubble, they seemingly absolve themselves of a certain amount of responsibility for its condition.

At the very least, a dismissal of the bubble should put a certain onus on the dismisser to explain what they are doing to improve the conditions within it.

I am also reminded of something Justin Trudeau himself said recently.

In an interview with The Grid in Toronto this month, the Liberal leader was asked whether he took any lessons from Rob Ford’s “improbable success.”

His strategy and the strategy taken by a lot of right-wing politicians is to run on the platform “Politics is bad.” They are the anti-politicians. That is fundamentally offside with what I think. Canadians have indeed resigned themselves to the idea of voting against—you vote against the ones you don’t like. I’m not saying government has all the answers, but it can certainly be a positive force.

Is there much of a difference between the cynicism of Rob Ford and the cynicism of that infographic? I suspect there is at least a lot less of a difference than Mr. Trudeau would like to say there is.

I suspect Mr. Trudeau and his advisors believe that, opposed to being in Question Period four times per week, he’s better off spending perhaps two or three days in Ottawa and the rest of his time elsewhere. I suspect from a purely strategic point of view, there’s something to that³. But he’s still going to have to explain it. And while there might be a reasonable explanation, that infographic seems like a particularly poor attempt.

In this case, the NDP needed about a day to parody the Liberal infographic with an inforgraphic of their own, arguing that their guy managed to be in the House and out across the country.

(For more on this discussion, see Part II of this post here, in which I recall a conversation I had with Mr. Trudeau last year on this point.)

¹ It’s probably important to note that Mr. Ignatieff’s problem here was two-fold: his attendance record was unflattering and, to make matters worse, he had no response for Mr. Layton’s attack. The Liberals eventually countered that Mr. Ignatieff had been out in the country, amongst the people (though the full explanation was probably a bit more complicated than that), but by then he’d already been knocked on his butt on national TV.

² My thinking here has lately been influenced by Alison Loat’s Tragedy in the Commons. A few weeks ago, I talked to Loat about her new book. After enumerating the problems with our parliamentary system, Loat and her co-author, Michael MacMillan, posit that it is for MPs to fix. But what, I wondered, of citizens? Shouldn’t they have some responsibility here? “Certainly we, as citizens, are very important, but I don’t think this can be a blame the citizen,” she responded. “People are busy and they have lots of responsibilities and we have a representative democracy. We choose our representatives to take care of our politics, our democracy and our public policy.” There is something here of Edmund Burke’s classic view of the “judgement” your representative owes you. “My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?”

³ The NDP has come to be rather willing to embrace Parliament as a forum, likely, I suspect, because they could not count on the major media outlets to carry their messages.