Matt Gurney thinks we should treat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau courteously, ‘with the respect [his] office deserves.’ Happily, our institutions require no such inhibition on free and vigorous political speech.
‘Prime minister’ is a job description. Historically it wasn’t even official. Britain’s Sir Robert Walpole, the first ‘prime minister,’ was officially First Lord of the Treasury, but as the man who presided over meetings of ministers and dealt directly with the King, he came to be called the ‘prime minister.’
Over time references to the Prime Minister have crept into legislation and regulations in Canada. But there is no reference to the office in the Constitution.
The Prime Minister is the most powerful politician in Canada. But as such he is entitled to no more respect than he has earned, and people will naturally differ on that.
Parliament, the Courts, the Crown, are institutions we should respect as fundamental elements of our country. The Queen, the Governor General, and judges deserve our respect because of their positions. Whatever we may think of them as individuals. There is ceremony and protocol to embody that respect. While there are procedures in place to assure that the Prime Minister can do his work, there is no ceremony and protocol prescribed for him.
The quasi-inauguration Justin Trudeau laid on for himself in November, only extending the practice of his recent predecessors and many premiers, confuses this aspect of our political institutions and culture.
As does an insistence that he should be referred to respectfully as the Prime Minister rather than Justin, Boy Trudeau, the airhead or whatever takes your fancy.
Trudeau is recently returned from his visit to Washington where he was treated to a guard of honour, a 19 gun salute and a ‘state dinner.’ Foreign leaders may want to lay on ceremony for prime ministers to butter them up or just for the fun of it. Stephen Harper treated Benjamin Netanyahu more like the President of Israel than its Prime Minister on his visit to Ottawa in March 2012. But we should not allow this to confuse us.
Trudeau, like Netanyahu, is a ‘head of government,’ not a ‘head of state.’ Countries differ in their handling of the two roles, one with power and work to do and answerable for it, the other representing the whole country to itself and the world. In most countries they are separate roles with a monarch or president with a limited role in government and a prime minister, whatever the title from Chancellor in Germany to Taoiseach in Ireland, with power and responsibility and work to do. In the United States, France, Russia and Latin America the roles are combined. Even in the present envenomed state of American politics some of Barack Obama’s harshest critics grant him some respect as POTUS. The combination of the roles leads both to politicians exploiting their role as head of state for political advantage and loss of respect for the state when they go bad.
We should understand and relish that we have got it right in separating the roles in Canada and not let Justin Trudeau’s celebrity and partisan hoopla confuse us.
There is much to be said for a civil tongue in politics, as in all of life. But there is no reason why we should be more civil about Justin Trudeau because he happens to be the Prime Minister than about anyone else. Are we asked to be polite about Rona Ambrose because she is the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Or Tom Mulcair because he once was?
When Trudeau goes abroad on our tab, he is not there to ‘represent’ Canada with a pretty face and a pleasant manner. He has work to do, or he should be back at his desk in Ottawa. We should hope that he does the work well, but should be watching him critically to see whether he does. We should not be distracted by ceremony and photo ops.
People think it’s clever and daring to be rude about the Queen. They shouldn’t, but no one seems to object and there is enough silly gush to balance their rudeness, though ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’ If people want to be rude about Trudeau, it’s their right. They may be cleverly rude or stupidly rude, but it’s all part of free speech trying to come to grips with the character and work of the most powerful politician in the country so that MPs in Parliament and voters at the next election can judge him.