Justin Trudeau and Ottawa's relevance

The House of Commons is what MPs are willing to make of it

The Sun has been hounding Justin Trudeau about his part-time job as a paid public speaker and asked yesterday about whether he should repay his speaking fees, Mr. Trudeau offered the following.

“Part of my job is to represent people. It is to make sure that the values of the people who elected me in Papineau are being heard in Ottawa and across the country. The work I do to put forward those issues and those values is something I’m very, very proud of. A job of a politician is not just a 9-to-5 job. We work on weekends. I’m present in community organizations regularly in my riding and across the country .That’s what we do, and we do it in a way that best matters. The fact that Ottawa right now is not a place where we can actually have real debate, where the government invokes time allocation and closure any chance it can get to prevent anyone – whether it’s a third party verifier or an oppositon MP – from actually speaking out against positions this government has taken means that Ottawa is less and less relevant to all Canadians. And the work that I do out here listening and connecting and building the trust of Canadians is essential to me.”

Afterwards, there was a discussion between some of us (including one of Mr. Trudeau’s top advisors) about the meaning of all this.

On one level, Mr. Trudeau is indisputably correct: “Ottawa,” which I take to mean “the business of the House of Commons” is less relevant to many people than many other things. The institution has fallen into disrepair. (And the government has, in this current Parliament, taken to making fairly frequent use of time allocation.) If Mr. Trudeau believes that the work of Parliament is less relevant than some of his other work as an MP and politician—the above explanation is a bit convoluted and so some inference is required here—he is surely not the only MP to hold that belief. And there is a certain admirable bluntness to acknowledging as much openly.

On another level, this verges on defeatism. How and how much the House of Commons matters depends almost entirely on how its members are willing to make use of it. For sure, the general public might be a great motivating force for change, they might demand more and better of their elected representatives and vote for those who vow to make the House and its members more relevant. Our current system of reward and punishment does not particularly benefit those who would make parliamentary debate and accountability a primary focus. There are all sorts of explanations for the current state of things and all sorts of ways that the House of Commons might be improved—democracy is a complicated thing for which we all share some blame—but ultimately there are 308 people in that room and it is they who are responsible for its upkeep. It is our House (and we should never forget that), but it is they who we hand the keys to. Mr. Trudeau’s promise is that, should he become prime minister, he will act to make the House of Commons and its members more relevant. If all of his work outside Parliament ultimately results in him becoming prime minister and enacting worthwhile reforms, his efforts will be redeemed. But that is at least two years away. In the meantime, there is a House of Commons that might be made more relevant. It should not be left to the fates of an election campaign to determine whether anything is done about that.