Keep on smiling, Justin

Trudeau’s election was more about personality than policy

By Angelo Persichilli (The Hill Times)

TORONTO—Elections are the art of making a mountain out of a molehill. This is true in Canada and in every democratic country.

Some are saying that elections are not about policies, but about character. No doubt that character is important, but making mistakes with a smile on your face doesn’t change the damage imposed on people.

I see many criticisms lately against the Liberal government for its approach toward immigration, foreign policy, some social issues, and its economic plan. They say that Trudeau’s government hasn’t really changed the policies implemented by the Harper government.

They have approved CETA, the Canada-EU free trade agreement negotiated by the Conservative government. They are pursuing the same TPP agreement negotiated by their predecessor. New immigration levels are basically the same as before with a small cosmetic increase in the numbers, particularly with refugees. Furthermore, people are still going to be deported, Canadian citizenship revoked to all those that lied during the application (well, almost all), our army is still involved in the fight against terrorism even if in a different capacity, and there have been some cosmetic changes in the handling some government business.

For example, there’s the appointment system for federal positions. Take the Senate. Before it was up to the prime minister. Now it is the same. In fact, it is the prime minister that appoints the members of the committee for the selection of the names to be presented to the prime minister, who makes the final choice.

If Justin Trudeau has not appointed Liberals supporters, it is not because of the system but because he has made the choice not to do so. Every prime minister, as we know, has “an option, sir,” as Brian Mulroney pointed out in 1984 to then-prime minister John Turner in a televised debate.

There is no government that can legislate honesty. What makes the difference is the honesty of the people handling things.

People and media act surprised that the Liberal government hasn’t changed the policies of the Conservatives. But they shouldn’t. We had an entire campaign judging the character of the leaders, not their policies. The be blunt, Stephen Harper was given the boot because he was not able to smile, not because of his policies.

I do not blame just the opposition for the tone of the last campaign. Most of the wounds that eventually killed the Conservative government were self-inflicted. Their communication skills seemed like something from the Seinfeld show, coordinated by George Costanza.

Conversely, the Liberal government has changed the tone of the relationship with the media and the people. They have reopened the third floor of the Centre Block to the media for scrums after meetings, allowing journalists to write more stories and freeing up ministers to talk.

I agree with all of the above. However, beyond these cosmetic changes, I don’t see much difference in the substance. The big change might be next year when they will present the new budget, but it will hardly be a surprise. During the campaign, the Liberals made no commitments to the debt reduction, media made no effort to ask specific questions to Trudeau, and they ignored Mr. Harper’s predictions about the outcome of bigger-than-expected deficits.

The same goes with immigration. The Liberal government has been criticized for not increasing, as required by some groups, the number of new immigrants allowed into Canada. But the Liberals, and the new minister of Immigration, have never made a commitment about numbers. The only commitment was to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada before the end of last year, something that they did, even if they missed the deadline.

The fact of the matter is that in Canada, as in most democratic countries, there are effectively only two political parties, the one in government and the one waiting to be in government, conventionally called “opposition.” They still pretend to have different ideologies, and they probably do. But they are only used during the electoral campaigns, like posters or front lawn signs. As soon as the campaign is over, they are recalled and stored for the next four years.

We changed government because of character, not because of policies. Mr. Harper didn’t know how to smile and many people around him considered communication skills a liability. Mr. Trudeau knows how and when to smile, and he is doing just fine. Keep on smiling.

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