In our hour of need, Justin Trudeau promises us better

In the absence of an agenda, there are only various scandals to wonder about

Before Justin Trudeau had uttered a word, Heritage Minister James Moore had used his fifth response to the New Democrats to scold the Liberal leader and then, in response to Mr. Trudeau’s first question, Mr. Moore had pronounced further shame on him and so now Mr. Trudeau attempted a rallying cry.

“Mr. Speaker,” the Liberal leader declared, “while they break the rules any chance they can get, we do not just follow the rules, we raise the bar.”

Most everyone laughed. The Conservatives and New Democrats howled. NDP House leader Nathan Cullen and Conservative MP Michelle Rempel exchanged pantomimes of weightlifters raising the bar above their heads. Pierre Poilievre made the motion for raising the roof.

The Speaker was compelled to call for order. When the floor was returned to him, Mr. Trudeau put his question and Mr. Moore dismissed it and then the Heritage Minister heaped more scorn on Mr. Trudeau’s speaking fees.

Mr. Trudeau’s grand declaration did sound a bit silly. It surely was a bit silly.

But the sentiment was all right.

These are the final days of the spring session and surely everyone here would rather be elsewhere. There is little left to do and even less to say. And in the absence of an agenda to argue about, there are only various scandals to wonder about and trivialities to chase in the interests of distracting from those scandals.

Without any actual reforms to propose, Tim Uppal, the minister of state for democratic reform, used his time to raise allegations of wrongdoing on the New Democrats. Challenging limits of the Speaker’s unwillingness to impose standards on this place and the extent to which viewers are willing to have their intelligence insulted, Conservative MP Blaine Calkins and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson used a scripted exchange on the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act to criticize Mr. Trudeau’s public speaking. Conservative backbencher Lawrence Toet and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews then performed a similar routine on the subject of Thomas Mulcair’s driving. In response to a question from Liberal MP Ralph Goodale about Nigel Wright, Mike Duffy, Bruce Carson, Arthur Porter, Saulie Zajdel, Peter Penashue and Patrick Brazeau, James Moore cited Mac Harb and, again, Mr. Trudeau.

When it was over the earth did not open wide and swallow this place whole, but surely no one would’ve minded if it had.

Two weeks removed from the worst month in the history of Canadian politics, the House is presently taken with the question of who here is the least disgraceful, even if only to pass the time until the summer break. And into this moment steps Mr. Trudeau, he of nostalgia and promise and hope and change and handsomeness and this rather remarkable line graph.

And, yes, of course, also of those public speaking fees.

It was Mr. Trudeau who, in February, disclosed his appearances and earnings. It was someone from the Grace Foundation who wrote, in March, to lament that their fundraiser had gone poorly. It was the Harper government that, last week, complained loudly about this situation. And it was Mr. Trudeau who, two days after seeming to dismiss the matter, announced that he would make amends.

It might be possible to make a reasonable argument that Mr. Trudeau has done nothing wrong—the same ethics commissioner to whom the Harper government deferred on the matter of Nigel Wright’s cheque seems to have cleared Mr. Trudeau to make the speeches he made between 2008 and 2012. And it might not matter much two years hence—surely Mr. Trudeau would be forgiven were he to look at recent history and conclude that elections could be won despite questions about the ethics of one’s actions.

But this is now for Mr. Trudeau to explain. He made those speeches, he accepted those fees and it thus for him to justify. This afternoon, awhile after Question Period he had concluded, he walked out into the foyer and stood in front of the cameras and took something like 20 questions. Again, he did not contain himself.

“I will talk with them about anything that they want to do. I am open,” he said of the groups he is promising to reach out to.

And then, in the next breath, another declaration.

“What I am demonstrating here is a level of openness, transparency, accountability that has never been seen before on this Parliament,” he ventured. “But this is the kind of standard that I know Canadians want to be able to expect from their public servants. It’s not—from the people who serve in this Parliament, it’s not enough to simply follow the rules or follow the ethics code or even follow the law because we have a government right now that has broken repeatedly all three of those. I am willing to go above and beyond to try and restore Canadians’ faith in a place that has betrayed them too many times.”

Was this silly too? Probably at least a little. Mr. Trudeau is not quite in possession of gravitas. He has not yet done enough to earn it. It was surely not necessary to declare his actions unprecedented. A man should not be proclaiming his own greatness (unless that man is Kanye West). And the politician chased by questions of poor judgment is not well positioned to proclaim the righteousness of his response.

A few more questions and then he was back into the meaning of it all.

“I’ve been very, very clear throughout that I’ve followed all the rules and all the Code of Ethics and all the laws involved but I also am aware that I am running to be prime minister,” he said. “And right now we have a Prime Minister that has demonstrated such a lack of judgment, a lack of openness, transparency, accountability that Canadians have become incredibly cynical about all of us who choose to serve in this place. And I realize that I have an opportunity here to demonstrate that Canadians can expect and deserve a better level of behaviour from people in this place who hope to wield the public trust one day.”

There are so many asterisks to apply to the political promise of Justin Trudeau. He is not yet a commanding performer in the House. He is untested as a political leader. He has said some things he shouldn’t have. He does not have a record of accomplishment. He does not yet have a platform. His poll numbers have the feel of a housing bubble. He has not proven attack ads wrong. An election is still two years away. He is opposite two formidable opponents, each with more experience at this stuff and more MPs in their caucuses. And at the start of the next election, there will be at least 303 ridings without a Liberal incumbent.

“Mr. Speaker, Canadians’ confidence in our public office-holders has been shaken by the opening of a criminal investigation into the Prime Minister’s own office,” Mr. Trudeau had declared with his first question this afternoon. “By raising the bar on openness and transparency, we can begin to restore confidence in our public institutions. Will the government choose transparency over secrecy? Will it publicly release a copy of the $90,000 cheque written by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff to Mike Duffy?”

Mr. Moore had scoffed. “Mr. Speaker,” the minister said, “somebody really should advise the Liberal leader not to lead with his chin in Question Period.”

Indeed, Mr. Trudeau’s declarations this day might’ve been a bit much, might’ve seemed a bit rich. His rivals might’ve laughed and mocked. He might not have proven anything. He might’ve invited only eye rolls.

But maybe still, in this particular moment, Mr. Trudeau has the right idea.

(And maybe it is worth remembering that the last time Mr. Moore invoked Mr. Trudeau’s chin it was the other guy who ended up woozy.)