Hébert: Town halls do reveal voter issues

There may come a time when Justin Trudeau falls out of love with the open town halls that are becoming a yearly feature of his tenure as prime minister.

When the mood of the country sours on a government, challengers are not as easily turned into enablers.

It does not take a huge amount of institutional memory to recall that Trudeau’s recent predecessors have all known periods where affection from the public or even part of their own party was hard to come by. The list includes the prime minister’s father.

Media veterans of the constitutional wars, the free trade debate and the sponsorship scandal, not to mention various GST episodes, have had occasion to measure first-hand how unreceptive a Canadian electorate polarized by a divisive issue can become towards a once-popular government leader.

But this year’s prime ministerial opening act is not such a time.

The format does play to Trudeau’s particular set of political skills. As a bonus, the town halls act as a caucus morale booster on the eve of what will undoubtedly be another rocky sitting of Parliament.

As widely noted, Trudeau is rarely as on top of things under fire in question period as he is in a public forum. But performance is only part of the story. The exercise also provides a reality check of sorts on the current mood of the country and the success or lack thereof of the opposition parties.

The politically engaged Canadians who show up at town halls cannot but be aware of the travails of Finance Minister Bill Morneau or of the prime minister’s lackadaisical approach to the ethics rules that should have prevented him from accepting a holiday invitation from the Aga Khan.

But in the big picture, the rough ride the opposition has given Trudeau over the fall sitting of Parliament has left relatively few skid marks on his public persona.

The town halls have elicited little evidence that the Conservative message that middle-class families are worse off under Trudeau is resonating or that there is a large market beyond the Tory base for the notion the prime minister is insensitive to their concerns by virtue of his personal wealth.

Ditto in the case of NDP assertions that the prime minister is managing the Canada-U.S. relationship on bended knees.

For lack of a solid factual foundation, neither opposition narrative has hit the kind of public opinion nerve that drives disappointed voters to reach for pitchforks to take to the government of the day.

The big battle of the next few months in Parliament is expected to revolve around the legalization of cannabis.

Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have pledged to do all they can to block or at least delay the implementation of Trudeau’s signature promise. They may be setting out to try to close the barn door after the horses have bolted.

At this late stage, a parliamentary blockade would wreak havoc with provincial plans. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the provinces have set out to meet next summer’s deadline to have in place the infrastructure required to market cannabis.

The Conservatives road-tested their message on cannabis in a series of byelections last fall only to finish the year two seats short of their initial complement. The change in the legal status of marijuana may be imminent but it did not emerge as a central concern on the town hall radar.

Inasmuch as the town halls succeeded in changing the narrative or at least in providing a temporary diversion from the troubles that await the Liberals once the House reopens later this month they have for the most part been decreed to be a strategic success for the government.

But the exercise has also shown that the connection between the dominant question period narratives of the past year and the actual central preoccupations of many voters is tenuous at best.

It is fair to wonder which of the two is the diversion: the issues that voters raise with the prime minister in the town halls or those that daily consume parliamentary insiders?

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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