The story of Justin Trudeau and the secret recording

And so the phrase "bozo eruption" is put on the record

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

When Justin Trudeau stood this afternoon to question the Prime Minister, the faint sound of the word “bozo” could be heard emanating from the Conservative benches, but it was the NDP’s Chris Charlton who officially put the phrase “bozo eruption” into the official record of the House of Commons—possibly for the first time in the 147 years of this place (and at least for the first time in the last 20 years).

“Mr. Speaker, we have all had a bit of fun with the comments from the member for Scarborough-Guildwood, who was taped talking about the Liberal leader’s ‘bozo eruptions,’ ” Ms. Charlton reported to the House just before QP. “I know the Conservatives are having a lot of fun with the Liberal leader’s gaffs and blunders, but let us keep in mind that bozo eruptions are not exclusively a Liberal thing. In fact, something the Conservatives invented were bozo eruptions.”

The NDP resource critic proceeded to rhyme off a series of Conservative statements she considered clownish.

At issue here is the secret recording of the member for Scarborough-Guildwood. Surreptitiously taped by an individual described as possessing “Conservative leanings,” Liberal MP John McKay can be heard speaking the phrase “bozo eruption” in regards to Mr. Trudeau’s comments earlier this month that Liberal MPs would be expected to support a strident pro-choice position on abortion (with an exception provided for current MPs like Mr. McKay).

Now, in fairness, Mr. McKay does seem to put the possibility that what Mr. Trudeau said on May 7 amounted to a “bozo eruption” in the past tense—explaining that he “initially thought” it was—but “bozo eruption” is not generally the sort of phrase that one wants to see spoken anywhere near one’s name, let alone in headlines. And Mr. McKay does go on to say that he thinks Mr. Trudeau’s “brain trust” might’ve made a terrible move in deciding on this course.

Was Mr. Trudeau bozo-esque in some way here?

If he was, the Conservatives seem, perhaps curiously, rather restrained about it. Contrary to what one might’ve expected, no Conservative MP was sent up to mock Mr. Trudeau before QP this afternoon, nor were any particularly obvious references to the matter made during QP. Perhaps, after seeming to go after the Chief Justice and then retreating, they have come to understand that we all periodically say things we shouldn’t have. Or perhaps Conservatives are a bit hesitant about pointing and laughing at a party leader who wants nothing to do with changing the laws around abortion.

Either way, the Conservatives are likely happy to see the b-word in print.

Mr. Trudeau might not have been entirely eloquent in explaining himself this month, but if it was a bozo eruption, it was a bozo eruption he had basically put in writing a year earlier. So possibly the mistake here was in everyone failing to follow up on that point. Though if Mr. McKay was somehow surprised by Mr. Trudeau’s stance, then possibly, Mr. Trudeau did not do enough to communicate his stance to his caucus.

The ultimate political wisdom, or lack thereof, on display here won’t really be knowable until the fall of 2015 when the ballots are counted and guesses are ventured as to how, if at all, Mr. Trudeau’s stance somehow impacted those results. If Mr. McKay is right, the Liberal party might come to regard this as a bozo eruption. If Mr. Trudeau comes to occupy the Prime Minister’s Office without having to moderate this position, it might seem a genius gambit (or an unremarkable footnote).

Is Mr. Trudeau particularly out of step with the Canadian public on this count? I’m not sure that he is. Does it make sense that some matters should be considered free votes of conscience? Good question.

That an MP should be caught out speaking impolitically via secret recording raises any number of other questions—some of them possibly even more interesting than whether or not the Liberal party should have adopted a strident position on abortion.

There is obviously something somewhat unfortunate about an individual—even a politician—being recorded without their knowledge. Perhaps Mr. McKay was even somehow set-up by that someone with “Conservative leanings.” But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Mr. McKay is not responsible for his remarks.

Rather, it might follow that we should hook up all MPs with microphones that they would be expected to wear at all times. Perhaps that is how we could usher in a new, more candid political discourse. At the end of each week, we could have a Conservative-leaning someone review the Liberal tapes and a Liberal-leaning someone review the Conservatives tapes and pick out the most interesting bits (the New Democrats, desperate for someone to pay them some mind, could surely be trusted to hand over all their tapes with the most salacious stuff already indexed).

Or perhaps that would ensure that politicians only ever spoke in anodyne talking points, every waking moment—perhaps even their nocturnal mumblings—spent speaking in statements that have been sufficiently calibrated and considered before delivery. This might at least have the benefit of better training MPs to never say anything interesting and thus limit the likelihood of future “bozo eruptions.”

As an experiment, I say we hook up Pat Martin with a recorder for the next week and see what happens.

A certain lack of seriousness is, of course, Mr. Trudeau’s cross to bear—and perhaps, if he hopes to win office, toss aside. At least insofar as it seems to be the primary complaint of his critics about him. And it is Mr. Trudeau’s recent history that he periodically says things that are of questionable seriousness. But it is also supposed to be part of his appeal that he is not so scripted that he does not periodically say something he might’ve wished he put differently.

A year into his leadership—and a year into the polling lead his party has enjoyed since making him leader—there remains this question of seriousness and this tension about whatever Mr. Trudeau is supposed to be.

Striding confidently to the expectant scrum that awaited him this afternoon after QP, Mr. Trudeau proceeded to bat away this matter of Mr. McKay and the secret recording.

“Obviously, Mr. McKay, as we all know, has very strong personal feelings on this issue, and I can understand how those personal feelings might have overflowed, but my role as Leader of the Liberal Party is to make sure that Canadians know that the Liberal Party will be unambiguous when it comes to standing up for women’s rights and that’s what we will continue to,” the Liberal said.

Had Mr. McKay apologized?

“Mr. McKay and I spoke, and he apologized personally to me, and for me—

Was he going to punish Mr. McKay?

“—for me the matter is closed.”

He equally dismissed questions about the Catholic church and whether Mr. McKay spoke for greater disgruntlement—insisting on the clarity and certainty of the party’s position and the need to defend the rights of individuals.

The woman from the Canadian Press then wondered whether the spectre of secret recording might result in politicians feeling unwilling or unable to be open and frank.

There is a lot we might consider in that question—whether, for instance, being open and frank is not something that can happen in the presence of a microphone or whether the only open and frank conversations are had far away from this land of microphones and cameras, in distant ridings where the press gallery rarely treads. (I am reminded here of David Wilks’ brief flirtation with candour in 2012.)

Mr. Trudeau’s response was pitch perfect in its appeal for candour and its retreat into talking points.

“I hope not. I hope that politicians will continue to be forthright and answer questions from constituents,” he said. “I think this yet again reinforces how much our opponents are focussed on me and on us while the Liberal Party remains resolutely focussed on Canadians and on serving them.”