Parliament Hill felt bracingly normal on Monday morning, with MPs traipsing through the corridors and the media staking out the doors of meeting rooms again – almost like life as it existed before the pandemic and an election.
The normality even seemed to strike Justin Trudeau as he stood and looked at the sea of faces in his Liberal caucus, meeting for the first time since the Sept. 20 election. “Man, it is so good to see you guys in person, in the same room,” the prime minister said.
Had Trudeau known how good it would feel, perhaps he wouldn’t have waited seven weeks to convene the MPs who won their seats in that tough, late-summer election.
Since then, Trudeau has done quite a bit. He’s welcomed two Canadians back home after their arbitrary detention in China. He’s taken a controversial vacation. He’s assembled a cabinet and attended international meetings in the Netherlands, Rome and Glasgow.
But until this week, Trudeau hadn’t sat down with MPs who spent the better part of two months working on the ground, from doorstep to doorstep, to make sure he could keep doing all these things as prime minister.
Caucus meetings are private and the media was shooed from the room right after Trudeau made his opening remarks, so it wasn’t immediately clear whether apologies were offered for how long it took to arrange a post-election get-together for the ruling Liberals.
But there’s no question – it was too long.
MPs were grumbling privately before Monday, telling journalists like me that they found the silence baffling, frustrating and quite possibly insulting. But caucus veterans also said it was par for the course – Trudeau, a self-described “introvert,” is not a prime minister known for his team-building skills with backbenchers.
If that is part of back to normal, though, it may be time for a look at a new normal.
In his opening remarks, Trudeau talked in broad, general terms about the ambitious agenda for his government in its third term. “People have a big appetite for bold ideas about a better future for this country,” he said.
That may be true, but Trudeau was not the leading expert in the room on what people are thinking. Every other MP in that caucus meeting likely spoke to more citizens in one week than Trudeau did during the whole campaign. Presumably, they shared some of that on-the-ground intelligence when the doors were closed and the Liberals talked among themselves.
Trudeau would be smart to listen to them – these are the people who did a lot of the hard work of putting citizens together with pandemic-relief programs for much of the past two years.
If he is pleased that COVID-19 put Canadians in closer touch with their federal government – and Trudeau has said he is – then he owes the MPs some thanks for that.
It wasn’t easy being a Liberal seeking election or re-election in 2021, in other words, and the prime minister owes them some quality time after that campaign – maybe even a heartfelt, in-person thank you.
All prime ministers have dealt with restive caucuses with varying levels of success. Brian Mulroney was a master at it – even when his own popularity was polling in the single digits, his caucus stood resolutely behind him. Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper were more aloof, but they had their own ways, with small and large gestures, to make sure MPs felt appreciated. Trudeau, by and large, has not done the same. There are some MPs who have never had a private sit-down with the prime minister or members of his office.
Two weeks ago, Trudeau reconfigured his cabinet to work in teams. Now he needs to do the same with his caucus.
On Monday, he praised Liberal MPs for not being the kind of politicians who would say they were too privileged to get vaccinated.
“I can’t imagine any of you putting up your hands and saying, ‘Well, I deserve special treatment because I’m an MP,’” he said.
Sure, humility is a good thing in a politician, but it wouldn’t hurt for the prime minister to see these MPs as a little bit special, at least to him, in this third term they helped him win.
Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.