Bug-eyed and Shameless
Bug-eyed and Shameless Podcast
The Justin Trudeau Interview

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The Justin Trudeau Interview

After eight years in power, is the G7 leader in a "reality distortion field"?

I used to cover Canadian politics full-time. I don’t anymore.

The reason why is pretty simple: It bums me out. It feels like lots of things are broken, and that we would rather trade recriminations than fix them. Good journalism, in this toxic feedback loop, doesn’t help much.

Somehow, the things this newsletter is normally about — disinformation, conspiracy theories, information warfare, conflict — depress me less. Because I believe that those issues, polarizing and problematic as they are, can be fixed. And that people want to fix them. And that good journalism can help us get there.

Pessimistic as I am, I occasionally return to my former beat. For the past seven months, I’ve been working on a sprawling profile of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government. The result went online today in The Walrus, and it will be in a future print edition of the magazine. You can also listen to me talk to

about it on today’s edition of his podcast.

And, today, on a very special subscribers-only edition of Bug-eyed and Shameless, exclusive access to my whole conversation with the prime minister. You can listen to the audio above, and/or read the transcript, below. My questions are in bold — the transcript has been tidied up for length and clarity.

As the transcript may be too long for email, you may need to visit bugeyedandshameless.com to read the full text.

It's been eight years since the last time you guys sat down for a one on one — and that has nothing to do with you, that’s an indictment of me, I think.

When I heard you were coming in, I thought: Okay, well, we're gonna talk about prisons again, like we did all the way through COVID.

I don’t have much on prisons for today. But there’s another thing I'm always obsessed with, which we talked about last time. I figure it's a good place to start: Transparency, accountability, good governance. When you and I chatted in 2015, before you were elected, you made the point that if you were to get into government, you would fundamentally change the way in which Canadians get information — access-to-information being a big part of it. We’re eight years on, and even the Information Commissioner says that things have gotten actually measurably worse. Why has it been so difficult to implement those changes?

Well, first of all, governments have to be able to deliver. They have to be able to be shown to deliver and they have to be accountable on that delivery. And that's where, for me, evidence, data, metrics — all those things — are hugely important, and always have been. And a lot of what we tried to do in the beginning was to change the way government actually operated. Turns out that transparency was, of course, a good thing, and something we're striving for. But there was so much more to do about shifting government into the mindset of actually delivering for people.

We took over with a very different approach to government than the previous government. We were very much focused on — ‘deliverology’ was a part of this — showcasing for people, not: Here, we're making the announcement of $20 million investment in this, but: Here, we're actually going to build this or impact this many number of people with this positive change, we're going to lift these boil water advisories. Whatever it was, it was actually about getting the system, first and foremost, to focus on what it's actually doing. And as you change that, well then it makes a lot more sense — and you're a lot more able — to be open about what you're doing and to share the numbers on it, everything like that. But when you have a system that is not focused on that, it remains extremely difficult to showcase what we're doing. We're constantly seeing reminders of that.

But even you've underlined the fact that a government self-grading, releasing its own information, can't be the benchmark. You need independent oversight. You need journalists verifying that information. And the access to information system was — was — the great tool to do that. It's gotten worse by every metric over the last eight years. Do you think it actually hinders your ability to govern effectively, because the people covering you, keeping you accountable, have less access to information that they did eight years ago?

Actually, I sort of take issue with that. Yes, the access-to-information regime, specifically, still has challenges, so that's why we're still working on it. But to say that that's the only way people covering government can actually see what government's doing carries a bit of cynicism with it — because you can't believe the press conferences; because you can't trust the announcements; because the backgrounders, and the transparency, and the technical explanations, and all the open press conferences. I mean, you were around before we got elected, you know what a secretive government looks and behaves like. Yes, access-to-information continues to be an area where governments of all different types are struggling. But we have been a lot more open and engaged and available and engaging with experts, with media, with journalists — with all that — than previous governments.

I think you can talk to anybody in the press gallery, and they can tell you, yes, the availability, the access, has been there, but the actual quality of information coming out from this government has gotten worse. And there's been a growing concern that, for all of the backgrounders and press conferences, there has actually been sort of a retreat in the amount of useful, accurate, detailed information going out publicly. Do you think you’ve presided over actually an increase in the amount of real, tangible, and useful information going out to the public? Do you think this is open government?

Yeah, I think we have. The open mandate letters, for example, publishing mandate letters, and showing accountability on that. There’s the Trudeaumeter, which is a third-party site, or our own results tracker. They showed, by the end of the first mandate, everything we've done. I think the other piece of it is: We have been in government at a time where the decline in resources and ability of journalists to do the incredibly important work they're doing has also taken a really big hit. And to look at one side of the equation without the other doesn't make total sense. I mean, there have been real challenges in investigative reporters being able to do their work — the cancellation of W5 just a few weeks ago is a perfect example. The heavy lifting journalists have always had to do is getting even more difficult. And, yes, there are things that this government has done that has increased and improved their ability to do that. But there are other systems within government, like access-to-information, that still need to be worked on and improved.

When it comes to access-to-information, do you envision that changing? There’s been reports been stacking up — independent watchdogs are asking for it. It's just that nothing seems to move. Even in your own plans, there's sort of nothing on the horizon that will actually change this. I’d also underscore that the old your own mandate letter tracker hasn't been updated since 2019. It’s totally deprecated. Is this just too much going on? I mean, why can't you get these things done, that you first promised, now, eight years ago?

I guess, one of the criticisms that I'll have for how we behaved as a government is: We've always done a better job of doing things than of talking about the things we're doing. We foundationally changed the Canada Pension Plan for the better, secured it within a few months of getting elected to transform it for the better — and yet, nobody knows we've done that, we never spend enough time talking about that. The Canada Child Benefit, we did do a good effort of talking about. But, take just last week, for example, where we had pharmacare, we had childcare, we had we had the online harms bill — three massive things. And our ability to get people to know about that, and to communicate what we've actually done, has often been second to this government. And actually doing the big things, and getting big things done, has always been what's driven us.

The flip side of that is: One of the core things that we are absolutely focused on — and which will absolutely continue to improve over time — is delivering a better quality of services to citizens, and having them know what we're doing. And that's where we’re looking at healthcare, hinging around data; more digital government, better access to what government is doing; and better access to your own services, being able to renew your passport online in 30 days or it's free. These are the sorts of things that we're trying to push, that will go part and parcel with better, open, government. So it's like we discovered that opening a government that wasn't doing those things effectively wasn't really the top priority, it was to get government to do things, more things, better, and more impactfully for Canadians.

We've talked about it to death — you've talked about it to death. But there's one thing that I always fixate on, which is the promise, the degree of the promise to make 2015 the last election under first-past-the-post, and then there's sort of the degree of the about-face. Looking back, would you do it differently?


How would you do it differently?

I would have said from the very beginning: It'll be the last one under first-past-the-post, but it won't be proportional representation.

Do you not think you should have given people the choice?

I did give people the choice. And that's why this wasn't the last first-past-the-post twice now.

Gave them a choice, how?

I gave them a choice. I was, and continue to be, a deep, deep believer in Canadians being able to rank the choices on the ballot — it would take no changes in the electoral district, no changes in even the way people think. It's like: Okay, this woman, yes, would be a great representative. If not her, I'll take him. If not him, then her. That's fine. I just really don't want the blue guy to be elected, for example, that's how people think. That would have been a deep, powerful change in the electoral process.

People within my caucus convinced me that if I wanted to do it, I had to leave the door open a crack to being convinced on proportional representation. And because I left it open a crack on that, there were too many people out there, including the NDP and others, who were: Proportional representation or nothing. And I got faced with a choice: I had a majority, I had the theoretical ability to keep that promise and do what I wanted, which is: Bringing in a ranked ballot. Because I was not going to bring in proportional representation. I think proportional representation would be bad for Canada and that's a debate I'm happy to have anytime with anyone, if I ever have the time to spend on that — which I don't, as it’s not an issue that matters to many Canadians. But I had to make the choice: Do I ram through the change that I want, because I have a majority? Or do I say: For something this big — that's actually an irreversible change because it changes the way the next governments will be elected, and therefore they won't want to undo it — do I have to say: If there's no consensus, I can't move forward? And there was no consensus. I regret that I left the door open a crack to something I knew I would not be able to accept, which was proportional representation.

But you understand why so many people have felt like it was a bait and switch, because in the campaign, you never said what you're saying now.

Oh, no, I expressed it a thousand times in different contexts, my concerns around proportional representation and my support, absolutely, for ranked ballot.

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