How Justin Trudeau explained his approach to Parliament

How the Liberal leader explained himself last year

Justin Tang/CP

Justin Tang/CP

Fourteen months ago, Justin Trudeau tried to explain away a controversy over his public speaking with what seemed to me to be a potentially defeatist take on the state of Parliament.

A few months after that I was in Renfrew to see him speak. After his speech, he scrummed with local reporters while I stood and listened. After that scrum had broken up, he turned to me and started a second scrum, specifically on this topic of his presence in Parliament. It took me a moment to turn on my recorder, so we join the conversation in mid-sentence. (I think the “it” he was referring to was Parliament.)

Mr. Trudeau. … it’s something that I believe in deeply and am committed to. For me to see it being as irrelevant to so many Canadians as it is, is not a criticism of Parliament, it’s a reflection of the reality of what I see across the country and I’m trying to reconnect Canadians to our political process.

Me. So how do you handle your appearance in Question Period and the questions that will come up?

Mr. Trudeau. The questions will always come up. And the way I handle it is I’m there when I can be and I’m doing the job that I was hired to do, which is build the Liberal party from the ground up and that doesn’t happen on the floor of the House of Commons, that happens out there across the country.

Me. Can you change Parliament though—can you honestly hope to change Parliament if you’re not there as an experienced parliamentarian, steeped in that stuff?

Mr. Trudeau. The most important part of our parliamentary system is actually the debate, is the exchange of ideas, is the contrast of visions and solutions that come from opposite sides of the aisle, from different regions of the country. We don’t have that anymore. If I want to get interesting debate, I actually talk to the old farmer here, who said, I’m not a Liberal, I never will be, but you do some things about Monsanto… These are the interesting conversations. This is where I get genuine, thoughtful conversation. We don’t get that nearly enough in the House. And for me, being steeped in the kinds of pragmatic solutions that Canadians are focused on and not the political spin that Ottawa tends to be focused on, I think that’s the best way I can become a more powerful parliamentarian…

Me. Couldn’t you be a bigger influence if you were in Parliament? Couldn’t you change the debate if you were up in Parliament everyday?

Mr. Trudeau. I have been up in Parliament, regularly, for the first three weeks, two or three days up in Question Period, and I’m doing something different, I’m not following the news of the day, I’m talking about the issues that people are facing right now. I was able to convince my caucus colleagues to buy into this and they’re excited about it and now our first six questions … are on the things that are worrisome to Canadians and now about playing games. Now Ottawa, we’ll see if it starts to react to that, but whether I do it for three days a week or five days a week, I know the other parties will continue to criticize me every time I’m not in the House because they know I’m in their backyards talking to Canadians in a way that’s destabilizing for them and I’m going to keep doing that.

Me. Don’t you face the exact same attack that Michael Ignatieff got from Jack Layton in the last election during the debates?

Mr. Trudeau. Sure. And I see it lined up already. The problem with old generals is they’re always fighting the last war. This is the next war. And this is going to be for the hearts and minds of Canadians right across the country. And it doesn’t happen by who gets the most mentions in the House of Commons or who won QP or who got the clip of the evening, that’s not what it’s about.