Remember when former prime minister Pierre Trudeau warned voters that if Joe Clark were elected he would end up being like a “kind of a head waiter – taking orders from the premiers”?
You probably don’t – after all it was more than 35 years ago.
But it was emblematic of a view that has mostly persisted ever since: that any PM who tries to establish a co-operative working relationship with provincial premiers will end up suffering the death of 10 cuts. Better to avoid situations where different stakeholders might gang up and demand more than Ottawa can afford, and blame Ottawa for all the problems everywhere. Stephen Harper avoided First Ministers’ conferences like the plague. So firm was the conventional wisdom that few observers felt they could really blame him.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had a whirlwind of meetings, with Canada’s big-city mayors, with indigenous leaders, provincial premiers and many other stakeholders, all with needs, hopes and wish lists.
Much commentary surrounding these meetings emphasized how this will eventually end badly for the Prime Minister. That he will eventually find what others did – those who might look like friends became visceral critics as their wish lists go unfulfilled.
There’s a fair chance this will happen. But it’s not the only way this could turn out.
Since the “it will end in tears” version has been well argued by others, let me describe the alternative scenario.
Some politicians do better when they invest in building relationships. They recognize that disappointments are inevitable, and disagreements will occur, but that having to disappoint someone who likes and trusts you is going to go better than if there’s no relationship there to begin with.
In many ways, this is how Mr. Trudeau approached Canadian voters. I’m sure he knows he’s going to break promises, miss some goals, make some unhappy, leave some in the lurch. He’s likely counting on the disappointed believing his heart was in the right place, his intentions were good and if he could do more, he would.
Polling data about the new Prime Minister reveal that this has been a core strength for some time – many believe Mr. Trudeau will try his best, and make choices that he thinks are best for the country. In my experience, Canadians, including premiers, mayors and leaders of business, labour, indigenous and environmental groups, all know that the job of running this country is complex and requires compromises and tradeoffs. Few, if any, will be surprised if some of what they hoped for and even expected might not be possible.
Canadians know that globalization means more opportunities, but less control over our fortunes and choices. Mr. Trudeau didn’t make China’s economy slow, or Americans frack for oil, or the Saudis continue to push oil into an oversupplied market resulting in crashing prices, any more than that Mr. Harper had the opposite effect.
The 70 per cent of voters who inhabit the centre of the political spectrum (the political target audience for the federal Liberals) not only accept that changing global conditions might change the policy mix of the federal government – they’d prefer it that way.
To believe otherwise is to imagine that last October’s election outcome was the product of millions of people making individual calculations about the value of specific policies, when the evidence is that the choice is a blend of emotional factors, such as trust and confidence together with a smattering of recall about specific platform promises.
Now, it’s possible that Mr. Trudeau will find himself so enjoying making friends that he will make unwise choices that eventually bring his government down. One of the most tempting addictions in political life is the idea that you can accumulate endless amounts of political capital by saying “yes.” Equally, every “no” can feel as though you are spending political capital and increasing the risk of eventual electoral failure. In truth, it can work exactly the other way: If voters sense a Prime Minister unwilling to make a hard choice, they’ll look to replace him or her before long.
The case has been made by others that Mr. Trudeau so loves drinking from the popularity fire hose, that he will promise and spend with abandon to keep the party going. My own guess is that there’s something else at work in the Prime Minister’s willingness to meet and talk with so many potential adversaries. In the tradition of politicians such as former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, it seems to me that Mr. Trudeau is banking on an all-out effort to build relationships, to give and take, to persuade but also listen to persuasive arguments. He’s hoping that good relationships will help carry him safely through the rough waters that eventually lie ahead.
If skeptics of his approach are betting this PM doesn’t know what he’s doing, then it’s fair to say that this has been a losing bet so far.