Trudeau’s town halls about show, not substance

Public engagement should be forum to discuss policy, not an echo chamber of talking points

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first town hall tour in 2017 cost taxpayers over $131,000.

Trudeau kicked off his second  tour Jan. 9, 2018, and visited various locations across the country, eventually stopping in Winnipeg at the Investors Group Athletic Centre  Jan. 31 before continuing westward.

With this cost in mind, there should be one clear goal of these town halls: democratic participation in the political process.

Democratic participation is pivotal in a democracy, and starting these conversations is half of the battle. Remember, it was only three years ago that Canada was led by Stephen Harper, who – forget town halls – attended a whopping 35 per cent of question periods in 2015. Reporters were about as likely to ask him a question as they were to be struck by lightning.

Admittedly, that is no pat on the back for Trudeau – a prime minister encouraging democratic participation in a liberal democracy should be the bare minimum. The reality is that there are a lot of steps which must be taken to ensure a fair process unfolds in a town hall setting. Some of these are simply organizational. For instance, do not require those who attend to RSVP online ahead of time.

Another would be to perhaps consider announcing tour dates well ahead of time – instead of the less than a week notice Winnipeggers were given. When traveling on the dollar of the taxpayer, you have the obligation to make sure as many people can attend as possible.

But at the centre of the issue with these town halls are the hecklers. Protesting or heckling – for the purposes of advancing a political ideology with the objective of derailing the event – cannot be tolerated. There is no gray area when discussing this in the context of town halls. We require clear, concrete, public rules on what kind of behaviour leads to one’s physical removal from a town hall.

This should not be conflated with protests in other realms. Protesting a political rally is very different than protesting a town hall. A rally is a place where leaders can echo whichever talking point serves their agenda, whatever slogan will get a crowd roaring. To kick out a protester from a political rally – who is not attempting to derail the event – is nothing short of authoritarian. On the other hand, it would be comical to think that any person or group of people should have top priority in a town hall setting. That defeats the entire purpose of the event: a forum to discuss public policy in a democratic manner.

If Trudeau was truly interested in engaging democratically, he would have clear rules in place for these events that outline exactly which behaviour will be tolerated and which will not. In such a context, having people escorted out is not an act of authoritarianism but rather an act of respecting the thousands of others who gave up hours of their evening to hear the prime minister speak.

In order to run town halls effectively, we require rules that remove those who refuse to play by the rules. Trudeau already gives few good answers to those who bring up pressing issues at these events. In the spirit of a photo op, he dances around serious policy questions and aims not for answers but higher polling numbers. Trudeau’s avoidance of questions is compounded when he gains extra dodging time through extended interactions with hecklers. Trudeau gets away with giving illegitimate answers to policy questions while being praised with thunderous applause for giving extremely poor answers to hecklers. Who needs a real policy discussion when – instead of a response to a difficult question – you get a free lecture on the importance of having respect for democracy? Trudeau ultimately wins: he fails to provide meaningful responses, but is lauded as though he has.

Case in point: I personally asked Trudeau a question about environmental policy during his 2017 tour. Trudeau was then interrupted by a group of University of Winnipeg students before even having the chance to respond to the question about his then-recent approval of three oil pipelines. The student hecklers held up the town hall for 15 minutes or so while chanting anti-pipeline sentiments.

Although my initial question seemed to be well-received by the vast majority of those attending, the students holding up the event – who conceivably held similarly anti-pipeline views – did not receive such support. Instead of letting Trudeau fall flat in his answer, which he eventually got out – that renewable energy “won’t happen overnight,” and that somehow building permanent pipelines helps in the transition – it was the heckling and Trudeau’s response to it that dominated the subsequent news cycle.

If Trudeau and his team genuinely cared about the democratic process, they would have put in place guidelines that audience members must abide by. Instead, a quick Google search will find more than enough videos from the current tour of audience members heckling the prime minister at will, rarely being removed. To Trudeau, these hecklers are not a bug, but the system working smoothly. The tension they inhabit – between whether they are allowed to stay or are removed – serves to reinforce his image as the cool, calm, and rational prime minister looking to offer a teachable moment to naive idealists.

At this point, it does not take a genius to realize the true objective of these town halls: a political campaign across the country on taxpayer dollars. Another ingenious marketing ploy from the same people who brought us the shirtless photo-bombings and staged explanation of quantum computing.

Masquerading as a prime ministerial Ask Me Anything session, and running out the clock preaching the value of democracy and respecting others, has become a cover for combatting deteriorating approval ratings.