To get a sense of how Justin Trudeau’s government operates, the best place to stake out might not be the Parliament buildings, or even across Wellington Street at the Langevin Block, home of the Prime Minister’s Office. The more revealing Ottawa location is often Macdonald-Cartier International Airport. Through its departures gates, a steady flow of cabinet ministers can be spotted flying off to consultations all over Canada on just about any conceivable policy. On the arrivals level, a seemingly unbroken stream of visitors—mayors and union officials, First Nations and business leaders—show up for talks with Trudeau and his remarkably accessible senior decision-makers.
The list of consultations on key files, either already launched by the Liberal government or about to be, is long. It ranges from focused studies, like figuring out what to do about home mail delivery, to sweeping reviews, like the upcoming one on defence policy. There’s consulting about consultations. This week, for instance, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett wraps up the last of 18 meetings with families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, along with groups engaged on the issue. In the process, Bennett heard from about 1,500 individuals—and that was only a preliminary round of discussions, meant to gather views on how to set up a formal inquiry, which will involve far more extensive consultations. “It’s that Indigenous way of listening, not talking,” Bennett said of her approach.
But the appetite for exhaustive, multi-stage consultations is hardly limited to the First Nations portfolio. After Trudeau appointed Chrystia Freeland as his trade minister last fall, she held more than 70 meetings on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, hearing out everyone from labour leaders who oppose the 12-nation trade pact to business lobbyists who tout it as essential. That was just a prelude, though. Freeland promises broader consultations, plus a debate in the House and study by a parliamentary committee, before the deal is finally ratified or rejected.
Bennett, Freeland and many other ministers are not only following Trudeau’s highly visible example, but also his written orders. In mandate letters to cabinet ministers, he instructed them to foster “constructive dialogue with Canadians, civil society, and stakeholders, including business, organized labour, the broader public sector, and the not-for-profit and charitable sectors.” If that sounds like the sort of boilerplate that a shrewd political aide might advise a minister not to take too seriously, so far signs point to consultation as a non-negotiable hallmark of the Trudeau policy-making manual. That’s the case even in circumstances where listening to a lot of conflicting outside voices might reasonably be judged impractical.
Consider the challenge presented by last year’s Supreme Court of Canada decision to allow doctor-assisted suicide. The court had given the former Conservative government a year, up until this month, to comply, but recently extended that deadline until June. That allowed the Liberals a scant four months to draft, debate and pass a law on what is by any standard a complex, contentious file. They might have justifiably said there wasn’t time for much more public discourse, and assigned officials to get to work behind closed doors on legislation. Instead, Trudeau arranged for a rare joint committee of the House and Senate to hold consultations and deliver a report on how to proceed.
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Sen. James Cowan, the leader of the Senate Liberals and a member of the committee, says witnesses were mostly kept focused on how to implement the ruling, not arguing over the fraught ethics of assisted suicide. The committee is slated to deliver its report to Parliament on Feb. 25. Every consultation is different, of course, but this one illustrated just about every possible way that opening up a dialogue might go badly awry. The issue is deeply divisive. The time available to listen to independent positions and then shape them into useful conclusions is tightly constrained. Still, Cowan is optimistic the report will offer the government practical guidance, while the process satisfied those who understandably wanted to be heard—from legal experts to advocates for the disabled.
He says the exercise fits with a wider sense that Trudeau has ushered in a new era of receptiveness. “People that I talk to in health research, in universities, provincial governments, mayors—they’ll tell you they are talking now with ministers, and indeed the Prime Minister, the way they never have before,” Cowan says. “Now, how’s it going to work a year from now? We don’t know. But a fair-minded person would say the signals are positive.”
That’s the view of a Liberal, albeit one of the senators Trudeau kicked out of his parliamentary caucus, in favour of separating his elected MPs from appointed senators, back when he was an opposition leader. Even non-Liberals, though, generally seem upbeat about the new wave of consultations. Steven Staples, president of the Ottawa consulting firm Public Response, and founder of the Rideau Institute, a left-leaning group that focuses on defence policy, says the activists he works closely with are enjoying the thaw after feeling frozen out during the Stephen Harper years. “I think it’s legitimate,” Staples says. “I know the labour movement is feeling that this is genuine.”
Among the consultations Staples is eager to see is the promised defence policy review. He hopes it will engage far more than the usual suspects—academics, defence lobbyists, and peace groups. “If it’s the same people around the table, I could write their presentation for them,” he says. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan should instead model his review, Staples says, on the last one of its sort, conducted way back in 1994, when Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government was newly in power. “They went out on the road,” Staples recalls. “They met with experts and gave the public an opportunity to come forward. It was very engaging. People would like to have that chance again.”
No politician ever wants to sound uninterested in the views of ordinary voters, but some issues tend to call for specialized knowledge. Federal budget consultations have traditionally drawn mainly on the views of economists, sector lobbyists, and special-interest voices. This time, Finance Minister Bill Moreau tried for a more populist touch, launching his consultations last month with an online Google “hangout” discussion with students. But public interest in fiscal matters isn’t always overwhelming: a single constituent turned out for a budget consultation session held by Newfoundland MP Seamus O’Regan—but then O’Regan was late for the meeting himself.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s promised review of national security is one major consultation that’s bound to draw intense interest from experts and activists. Critics of the Tories’ Anti-terrorism Act said it went too far in jeopardizing civil liberties, and the law, passed last year as Bill C-51, led to an outpouring of serious academic research. But Trudeau ran on a promise to change only parts of it. David Christopher, communications manager in Vancouver for OpenMedia, a group that advocates for a “surveillance-free” Internet, argues that Goodale’s consultation must remain open to the case for repealing the law entirely. “We’re glad that they want to consult,” Christopher says. “But it depends on how genuine this consultation is going to be, and if full repeal of Bill C-51 is going to be an option on the table.”
In fact, groups eager to be heard in consultations on a variety of issues often urge the Liberals not to limit the discussion to ideas that fit with their electorally successful campaign platform. Allowing consultations to delve into ideas that might push the government away from implementing campaign promises obviously poses a problem. Is it possible for Liberals to maintain a stance of openness to all sorts of opinions while, at the same time, signalling that they will only seriously consider views that conform with their election commitments?
Electoral reform is a key file on which their platform seems to limit the options. Trudeau ran on a bold pledge to make the 2015 election the last one in which Canadians vote under the traditional first-past-the-post system, in which the winning candidate in each riding becomes MP and the rest get nothing. He promised that a parliamentary committee would consult on a variety of reform options, including proportional representation, in which a party’s number of MPs in the House more closely reflects its share of the overall vote, and ranked balloting, in which voters rate candidates from most to least favourite. Other reform ideas the government promises to examine include mandatory and online voting.
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef and Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc are expected to announce the committee soon. According to the Liberal platform, it will have to deliver its report quickly enough to give government time to table a law to fundamentally change the way Canadians vote within 18 months. That timetable would seem to rule out the Conservative demand for a referendum on any changes. As well, the clear vow to end first-past-the-post voting, no matter what, appears to mean that no major change at all will not be something contemplated by Liberal MPs on the committee—even though the status quo has enough support to have won out over electoral reform proposals in referendums in Prince Edward Island, Ontario and British Columbia.
Hearings on how Canadians vote are bound to make news in the coming months. But they’ll be competing with consultations on defence, Indigenous women, TPP and national security. And the Liberals say they’ll also consult on legalizing marijuana, revamping environmental reviews, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and more. An abundance of talk is assured. What sort of action it all generates, other than plenty at the Ottawa airport, remains to be seen.