Hébert: Repetition has limited virtue

Notwithstanding a spotty attendance record, Justin Trudeau spoke no less than 513 times in the House of Commons – mostly as part of question period – since the 42nd Parliament opened late in 2015.

Over the past year, the prime minister delivered more bromides than policy statements. The day Trudeau rose in the House to declare his intention to set a national floor price on carbon was a notable exception.

But the climate change issue – even as it has been top of mind for the Liberal government since it took power – was not one of the topics most raised with the prime minister in the House this year.

Pride of place in the list of questions put to Trudeau goes instead to political financing and the Liberal practice of offering private face time with the prime minister or one of his ministers in exchange for donations to the party.

Trudeau was asked more than 100 questions related to his and his cabinet’s participation in cash-for-access events, and the potential conflicts-of-interest that could arise from the practice.

He dismissed most of those questions with a blanket assurance that all rules were being followed. The record shows that on at least 25 occasions, Trudeau repeated the same answer almost word for word.

In so doing, the prime minister mostly demonstrated the limited virtues of repetition.

At year’s end, there remains a glaring disconnect between his contention that the fuss over cash-for-access is unwarranted and the guidelines that state “there should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties.”

Electoral reform was the other issue that dogged Trudeau in the House over the past year. He was on the receiving end of more than 40 questions about his promise to introduce a different voting system in time for the next election. Over the year, his intentions became harder rather than easier to pin down.

When a special parliamentary committee was tasked with exploring the issue in June, the focus of the prime minister’s interventions in the House was on the mandate he claimed he had to change the way Canadians elect their government.

“Sixty per cent of Canadians voted in favour of parties that promised to change the current voting system. Canadians clearly indicated that they wanted the most recent election to be the last one conducted under the existing system,” Trudeau told the House just before it adjourned for the summer.

But by December, he did not sound as certain or as enamoured of his mandate.

“The fact is there are many, many different perspectives across this country on electoral reform,” the prime minister told the MPs who wanted to know how he would follow up on the special committee report.

Question period has never been a prime venue for intellectual honesty, and Trudeau is not reinventing the genre. He is hardly the first prime minister to resort to obfuscation and evasion to talk his way out of unwanted opposition questions. That may be why his stonewalling has so far not exacted much of a political cost.

For all the travel Trudeau does at home and abroad, Canadians would, in theory, be more likely to catch a glimpse of the prime minister in action in the Commons, where he appears more regularly than anywhere else.

In practice though, that is not the case.

In its annual tally of Canada’s news coverage the Montreal firm Influence Communication found that with the exception of the federal budget, the most reported-on Canadian political events of the past year took place off the Hill.

In its year-end review of 2016 Canadian politics, CTV listed just one story – the adoption of Canada’s right-to-die legislation – in which Parliament truly took centre stage.

An Abacus poll published this weekend reported that one third of Canadians had not heard of the fundraising controversy the opposition and the media have so consistently hammered Trudeau about over the past few months.

Almost half said they had not heard of the ongoing online consultation on electoral reform – and that’s after the government sent a card about it to every household.

By any measure, much of what happens on Parliament Hill ends up staying on Parliament Hill. That is not just because there are fewer journalists to cover what goes on there. But more on that in a future column.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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