Published on Nov. 9, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.
The task of the journalist, as the late American columnist Walter Lippmann defined it, is to provide “a picture of reality on which the citizen can act.”
So what does reality look like now, after week one of the Justin Trudeau Liberal government?
Here are three impressions that emerged as this journalist watched events in the capital unfold last week. The first was the genuine excitement that greeted Trudeau and his cabinet when they were sworn in on Wednesday. The 3,500 people who crowded onto the grounds of Rideau Hall to watch the ceremony on large TV screens came to witness the turning of a page in Canadian political history, and they were not disappointed.
The second was surprise at the quality and depth of Trudeau’s cabinet. Most journalists, including me, had not fully appreciated the calibre of the election candidates (male and female) recruited by the Liberals. Post-election, they gave Trudeau a deep talent pool from which to draw his ministry. He promised gender parity, and he delivered. What’s more, the 15 women he chose are every bit as impressive as his 15 male ministers. It is the most diverse and representative federal cabinet we have ever had.
The third impression was of relief that the Harper Conservative era is finally over. That relief is palpable in the public service. There was a sense of a cloud having been dispersed, or a weight lifted, when hundreds of public servants gathered on Friday at the Lester B. Pearson building, home of the Department of Foreign Affairs (soon to be officially renamed Global Affairs), where the new ministers had assembled for an orientation session.
Whatever their private inclinations, civil servants do not normally wear their political hearts on their non-partisan sleeves. Friday was different. They cheered Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan. They cheered and hugged Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.They swarmed Trudeau and pushed in for selfies as he left.
He paused to say a few words: “I’m truly touched by the enthusiasm, by the support, because we’re going to have an awful lot of really hard work to do in the coming months, in the coming years, and we’re going to need every single one of you to give us – as you always do – your absolute best.” The crowd cheered again.
Stephen Harper would not have been amused by the scene. Of course, he would not be amused by most of things his successor is doing as he dismantles the more oppressive elements of the Harper legacy.
He has restored the freedom of speech to bureaucrats. He sent a letter to all heads of mission abroad freeing them from the Harper era obligation of reporting every public engagement – who they met and what they said – to Ottawa. Federal scientists are being told they are free again to discuss their work at conferences and in interviews with the media.
The message is clear: the new prime minister trusts the people who work for his government, just as he trusts the ministers who serve him to do their jobs and speak their minds without seeking the approval of the Prime Minister’s Office.
If the new picture of reality is a picture of openness, transparency and trust, no one will be happier than the journalists who write about the prime minister and the government. But this is very much the honeymoon phase. The test will come when things start to go wrong, as they inevitably will.
A few ministers will screw up; it always happens. They will get in trouble or their policies will go off the rails. Election promises will be abandoned. These failures will land at the prime minister’s door.
Leaders are judged not by how they handle success; Trudeau is doing fine on that score. They are judged by how they manage adversity. Only then will citizens be able to see Lippmann’s picture of reality on which they can act.