Are the federal leaders ever going to answer our questions?

If election campaigns are about answering voters’ questions about leaders and their parties, we’re off to a shaky start
By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 17, 2021
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a news conference at Rideau Hall on August 15, 2021. (Justin Tang/CP)

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Call me quaint and old-fashioned, but I thought election campaigns were about getting answers to questions that voters, understandably, have about the leaders, their parties, and their platforms, no? 

I mean, that’s why they expend so much effort and marshal so many resources to create these party platforms in the first place, right? And why the leaders submit to spin doctors and media trainers, hour after hour. The idea is to figure out how to answer voters’ questions — asked through their proxies, the members of the media — with as much skill as possible. We all understand that they want to put their best foot forward and advance their own agendas in answering those questions. But somewhere along the way, we’d also like them at least to pretend that they’re being responsive to voters. 

Before I take the leaders to task for their opening-day dodges, let’s acknowledge some of their successes. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau put a defensible question to his opponents: you need to explain why the public shouldn’t have an opportunity to render a verdict on us. Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is trying to make a virtue of not being on the road. He’s got a snazzy studio in which he’s meeting thousands of Canadians. There’s no baby-kissing, but it’s certainly safe. 

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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NDP leader Jagmeet Singh looked the most comfortable and authentic, eschewing canned remarks on a TelePrompter and just talking from his gut about what the NDP intends to fight for over the next five weeks. And Greens leader Annamie Paul also ditched the prompter, spoke from point-form notes, and — in face of the awful internecine battles that the Greens have become infamous for over the past few months — successfully conveyed an enthusiastic, upbeat spirit. 

However …

Trudeau’s skilful table-turning on the opposition doesn’t take away from the fact that this election call clearly violates the spirit of the fixed-elections-date law. The whole point of that law was to prevent prime ministers from calling snap elections only in their interests. It was meant to level the playing field. It’s about fairness. Trudeau is obviously calling this election to win a majority government. That may be in his interest as Liberal leader, but is it in the public’s interest amid a fourth wave of COVID-19? I guess we’ll see. 

Trudeau was also asked at least three times: If you’re going to put us through a $500 million election that millions of Canadians think is unnecessary in hopes of winning a majority, will you resign if you don’t get one?  

Three times, he dodged the question. To be clear, I don’t blame him for dodging the question. Politicians are taught not to answer hypothetical questions. But his inartful, utterly unresponsive answers were annoying. Why not just say, “I don’t answer hypothetical questions. I’m obviously trying to win as many seats as I can, and we’ll figure things out after Canadians have voted.” Direct question, direct answer. But we didn’t get that.

O’Toole also danced around the question of mandatory vaccines for federal employees and vaccine passports. Despite being asked numerous times whether he was in favour or opposed, he gave lengthy, detailed answers that ultimately avoided the question entirely. One can appreciate that coming out for mandatory vaccination is a heavier political lift for a Conservative leader than for the others, because of that party’s significant libertarian faction. But the fact that O’Toole didn’t answer the question three straight times means he’ll continue to be dogged by it on the hustings. Declining to give direct answers to direct questions tends not to make those questions go away; it tends to keep them alive. 

For his part, Singh was asked why it was apparently okay for the NDP premier of British Columbia to call an early election during a pandemic to improve his political standing but not okay for the current prime minister to do the same. John Horgan now has a majority government in Victoria and needs no more help from the Greens to stay in power, and Singh campaigned hard to make that happen. To quote Mitt Romney: If it’s sauce for the goose, it’s sauce for the gander. Again, Singh ignored the question of his hypocrisy and simply moved on to something else. 

Part of the fault in trying to nail jelly to the wall is ours in the media. For whatever reason, reporters tend to ask long, meandering questions, with plenty of subordinate clauses, which allows politicians to seize on a particular word and give non-responsive answers. Why didn’t anyone simply ask: “Mr. Trudeau, tell us one thing you wanted to get done but couldn’t because you don’t have a majority.” That’s clear and succinct. 

Trudeau may very well have punted the question, but his obfuscation would have been even more apparent and therefore useful to voters. (The answer, incidentally, is “nothing.” The Liberals haven’t lost a single vote of significance since the 2019 election. And they haven’t introduced any evidence to suggest that the minority parliament truly wasn’t working.) 

Because I’m an optimistic person, I’m going to hope that, between now and September 20, we get reporters who ask tighter, leaner, more effective questions — and politicians who give more direct, more responsive, more informative answers. I’m not holding my breath, but they’ve got 35 more days to figure it out. 

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