How much should we expect of Justin Trudeau?

Justin Trudeau fought cynicism with hope, but what should we hope for from him now?

Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau and their children Ella-Grace, Hadrien and Xavier lead the new Liberal cabinet to Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau and their children Ella-Grace, Hadrien and Xavier lead the new Liberal cabinet to Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

This will all end in tears, won’t it? Doesn’t it always? Isn’t it inevitable? Shouldn’t it be expected?

“We will not let you down,” he vowed in an open letter to Canadians on his first day as the 23rd Prime Minister.

But surely they will, won’t they?

After the ridiculously heartening images of the handsome, young and nearly mythic Prime Minister leading his cabinet up the road to Rideau Hall under a cloudless sky, his children running up to greet him and his beautiful wife, a few thousand citizens lining the route, and after the generous hugs and smiles and singing and clapping of the swearing-in ceremony, Justin Trudeau stepped outside to stand in front of his ministers and take questions from the horde that had come to document history.

“We’ve seen some visible changes in your approach, but could you just explain to us, if you had a message to Canadians, what kind of government are you hoping to offer them?” asked the first reporter at the microphone. “How will it be different?”

“Well,” he said, “I think one of the first things is that we’re a government that wants to earn Canadians’ trusts by demonstrating that we trust Canadians.”

This was preposterous enough, but he went on.

“Openness and transparency isn’t just about trust, though,” he clarified. “It’s also very much about better policy-making, better decisions. When media can do their jobs of holding us to account and asking tough questions, when disclosure and access to information is just the way Parliament behaves, when open data and evidence-based policy is at the heart of policy-making and government’s decisions, you get the kind of government that Canadians expect and deserve. And that’s what we’re going to be working very, very hard to deliver.”

So here are words that we will have to taunt Trudeau the Younger if (when?) it all goes pear-shaped. Lovely of him to give us the clip at such a moment. It will be all the easier now to wistfully look back and sigh about how wonderfully it all started before he trampled all over his own rhetoric with his government’s actions.

Unless, of course, it all goes well. Or at least turns out kind of okay.

Those who have unshakeable policy differences with the Liberal agenda might be excused from possessing much of any hope, but even for the rest there is an exceedingly good case for not getting one’s hopes up. Though the health of our democracy has, in the long view, steadily improved, its shortcomings remain glaring. The list of Prime Ministers Who Have Promised Change is probably nearly as long as the list of prime ministers. And it’s unclear when a prime minister last left office amid something other than disillusionment and disappointment.

So what should we expect of Justin Trudeau?

He comes to office in reaction to a leader who, in the recent assessment of historian Robert Bothwell, “probably was the most cynical prime minister in Canadian history.” Even if a full ranking of prime ministers by cynicism might be disputed, it might be said that cynicism was a significant theme of Stephen Harper’s time, perhaps even in his attitude toward Ottawa and the federal government. There were the boutique tax credits, the use of mandatory-minimum prison sentences, the sloganeering and self-promotion backed by tens of millions of dollars in government advertising, eliminating the long-form census, appointing party loyalists, defeated candidates and Mike Duffy to the Senate, eliminating the per-vote subsidy, the government’s unapologetic approach to Parliament, the tight control on all information, the reduction of backbenchers to talking-point machines, the government’s rhetoric and policy on climate change. And cynicism was certainly inherent in a Conservative campaign that came to involve the niqab, a hotline for the reporting of “barbaric cultural practices,” a “tax lock” law, the promise of $1.5 billion to help homeowners redo their kitchens or install a new a bathroom, the prime minister narrating a daily show of some volunteer throwing money down on a table while cash-register sound effects rang out and special guest appearances by the Ford brothers.

Justin Trudeau beat all that with a phrase that conveyed the precise opposite of cynicism: “Better,” he said, “is always possible.”

In the delightful moments before he has to do much of anything, all sorts of things seem possible, up to and including the possibility that he will help make the political process slightly less depressing to behold.

He has spent the subsequent weeks doing conspicuously different things. On the morning after election night, he walked into a metro station in Montreal to thank his constituents. Hours later, he walked into the National Press Theatre to take questions from the press gallery on their own turf. He dressed up as Han Solo and took his kids trick-or-treating. He hugged the premier of Ontario. The public was invited to Rideau Hall to witness the swearing-in of his government (the grounds had been open for previous swearings-in, but no one before bothered to extend the invitation). The minister of the environment’s title was changed to include “climate change.” He invited Peter Mansbridge to tag along for the first day.  After Rideau Hall, he went back to his office and did a Google hangout with schoolchildren. The press gallery was alerted to the fact that the cabinet would then be meeting—the sort of notice that was not provided by the previous government—and ministers took questions from reporters afterwards (even if they had almost nothing to say). He sent a nice letter to the foreign service and set the scientists free. And the next day he took a stroll down Parliament Hill, responding to questions from reporters as he walked and happily greeting a former Conservative MP he came across (“Ed!” he exclaimed at the sight of Ed Holder).

Even before his cabinet had been named, it was hailed as “one of the deepest in talent in modern history.” For good measure, several of his cabinet ministers subsequently stopped to speak with reporters the day after their appointments and one of them, Chrystia Freeland, proceeded then to employ the word “leitmotif,” as in “a real leitmotif of the Trudeau government is going to be openness and consultation.” Welcome to the Leitmotif Era!

In his first 24 hours as Prime Minister he fulfilled two campaign promises. First, he appointed 15 men and 15 women as cabinet ministers. That he set hearts aflutter with his explanation afterwards—”Because it’s 2015″—as an added bonus. Second, his government reinstated the long-form census. That Tony Clement couldn’t then bring himself to defend his own kiboshing of the long-form was an added bonus.

All of which could be described as easy. Which is not to say that it doesn’t matter. Because it might.

“Actions, behaviours and habits will never change unless mindsets, assumptions and expectations are first shifted,” Justin Trudeau once wrote. That was him commending the rhetoric of Barack Obama, defending that leader’s talk of hope as a good thing in and of itself. He might make the same argument to defend himself now, though obviously it matters what happens next.

The expectations for Trudeau are equally humble and grand. “In electing Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to a majority government, Canadians are seeking a return to the values they believe have traditionally defined our society: civility, kindness, inclusion and collaboration,” Ensight, a public relations firm, reported last month after surveying voters. “This quest to feel good about ourselves will inform how the new government’s policies and actions, in every sector, will be judged.”

Mr. Obama, you will recall, also came to office on a theme of tone and manner. And, you might have noticed, he has so far proved unable to single-handedly bring enlightenment to the American political system—though it might be easier for Trudeau to change the political calculations of those around him here. But Obama might surrender the presidency next year with the record of a great president. And it is possible to construct a hypothetical scenario in which the next four to eight years—not since 1930 has a federal party won a majority in the House of Commons and then been dismissed after just one term—see Justin Trudeau build a significant record of achievement. For the sake of argument, imagine that his government sets the country on a real path of real action to combat climate change, funds significant improvements to the country’s infrastructure, calls a meaningful inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, significantly reshapes the Senate, legalizes marijuana and proceeds with a series of democratic reforms. Maybe this government reorients the justice system, does well to navigate new provisions for assisted death, and puts together a decent line-up of musical acts for the sesquicentennial celebration in 2017. Substitute or add a few desired achievements at your leisure.

Would that be enough to feel basically okay about the time of Trudeau II even if the darkness of cynicism eventually tarnished him and drove voters to another promise of change? If his government merely ends up seeming disorganized and incompetent, it might not matter either way. But otherwise he has burdened himself with the promises of not only new policy, but also a better way of doing things.

A cynic might note that exceeding recent standards for loveliness in politics requires little effort and that minor adjustments—smiling more!—can be passed off as dramatic change. Perhaps change even carries less risk than imagined (taking questions from reporters doesn’t necessarily mean you have to answer the questions). And it’s possible that the public’s eagerness to see Justin Trudeau do well will allow him unique space to open up the process of governance and embrace complication.

If you are eager to worry, the first days have provided at least one item that might later be cited as foreshadowing: the small matter of how the return of the long-form census was explained. The new minister of “innovation, science and technology” was happy to announce the news, but he was curiously reluctant to enunciate precisely how the mandatory nature of the long-form would be enforced. “Well, the law is the law,” Navdeep Bains said, eliding over the statutory threat of a fine or imprisonment. “And so, again, we’re very much focused on making sure people get the good, reliable data that they need.”

The highest standards of transparency and openness and trust—not to mention the ideal of “politics in full sentences” as invoked by Naheed Nenshi—would seem to demand an acknowledgement of the realities of a mandatory census, however less-than-“sunny” those realities might be. So maybe this was just an early moment of weakness. Or maybe this new kind of politics doesn’t entirely preclude gamesmanship of this sort.

(This story, from my colleague John Geddes, might also qualify as a reason for doubt.)

“When we make a mistake – as all governments do – it is important that we acknowledge that mistake and learn from it,” Trudeau wrote in his letter to Canadians. “We know that you do not expect us to be perfect – but you expect us to work tirelessly, and to be honest, open, and sincere in our efforts to serve the public interest.”

How the new government behaves when it is inevitably found to have done something unfortunate will be a significant test. It could, for instance, be argued that Stephen Harper would have fared better if he had moved quickly to more fully and completely account for the matter of Mike Duffy. But, for that matter, he might have avoided that mess altogether if his government had been operating all along with some thought to how it would ever explain itself if its actions became known to the public. By the time Nigel Wright’s cheque was revealed, there was too much to account for. And so that—How will we explain this?—might then be the question that should be foremost in the Trudeau government from the outset.

Of course, it is very easy to be cynical. It is possibly even advisable. First, because there is a long history of disappointment. Second, because nearly everything we see or hear from a politician is preceded by consideration, counsel and polling. It is contrived. During Peter Mansbridge’s day with the new Prime Minister, cameras recorded Trudeau and his retinue discussing the likelihood that a reporter would ask about his insistence on gender parity in cabinet and so we can see Trudeau’s retort being formulated. “I think just calling people’s attention to the year is all you really need to say,” offers Gerry Butts, Trudeau’s closest adviser. That lack of perfect spontaneity might diminish the moment that came a few hours later when Trudeau did just that, but is it useful to acknowledge that something can be both contrived and admirable.

Politics is a battle between hope and cynicism, but hope is what keeps us putting one foot in front of the other. Fifteen years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote, “Even in AD 2000, who among us is so cynical that he doesn’t have some good old corny American hope way down deep in his heart, lying dormant like a spinster’s ardor, not dead but just waiting for the right guy to give it to?” He was writing about a week he spent in proximity to John McCain, the American senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate. This was when McCain was still Someone To Believe In, long before he was ready to put Sarah Palin one heartbeat away from the presidency. The easiest way to never have your hopes crushed is to keep those hopes small and buried underneath layers of cynicism. But that actually gives the politician a break, allowing he or she to merely meet or exceed our worst assumptions.

It was “hope and hard work”—the necessary promise and effort required for a winning campaign—that got Trudeau to this point. And it is with hope and high expectation—as opposed to cynicism—that any new government should be regarded.

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