Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shows off his costume as Clark Kent, alter ego of comic book superhero Superman, as he walks through the House of Commons, in Ottawa Oct. 31. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

No more Mr. Nice Guy

Friendly leaders overseeing bad things are a feature of the system, not a bug

Justin Trudeau dressed up for Halloween as Clark Kent. The prime minister walked through the Centre Block of Parliament, pulled his button-down open to reveal a Superman shirt underneath in a moment that was totally spontaneous and not at all planned for the cameras.

That sounds like a fun thing, until you remember that a national leader claiming to be Superman, even in jest, and even on Halloween, is a little weird.

More than that though, Clark Kent was a reporter. Justin Trudeau is, it hardly needs to be said, not a reporter. If the prime minister was really committed to the bit, he could have asked his beleaguered finance minister, Bill Morneau, why he was attempting to parry questions about his conflict-of-interest scandal by reciting lists of numbered companies of Conservative MPs.

People dislike the prime minister for a lot of bad and uninformed reasons — honestly, the fact that he was once a drama teacher is one of the least objectionable things about him — but even so, the Mr. Nice Guy routine is wearing a tad thin.

Trudeau might wear a Halloween costume to the House of Commons, but there’s nothing goofy or good natured about overseeing a government that, say, spends $110,000 in a court case over $6,000 in dental procedures for a Cree teenager, or promises improvements to access-to-information rules that actually make it harder for people to get information. You can probably add a few examples of your own.

The nice guy facade is an easy one to adopt, since there are so many venal monsters and barbaric psychopaths in politics. It’s pretty easy to call yourself a feminist, field an impressively diverse cabinet — and then cheerfully go on overseeing the mundane daily cruelties that have been meted out by bureaucratic government pretty much nonstop since Confederation.

This brings us to Sandy Silver’s government, which took power in the footsteps of a Yukon Party government that, towards the end, basically stopped even pretending to care what anyone thought of it.

Silver is a genuinely nice guy. People in Dawson City generally love him as their MLA. The premier mercifully spared us a Halloween costume, so points for that, but his government too is being sucked into the inescapable black hole that is duplicity in the name of the Crown.

Because as approachable as Silver may be personally, and even though the Liberals ran on a promise of greater transparency, his government is backsliding into the same old bad communications habits that every government everywhere in the country relies on.

Would answering a question honestly force you to admit faults or shortcomings? Don’t worry! You have a sizeable, well-paid communications staff ready to churn out bespoke talking points shot through with off-the-rack terms like “engagement” and “moving forward.”

Don’t want to answer the question at all? Just don’t answer it! Pretend it wasn’t asked even though reporters have been asking it repeatedly. This has been the justice department’s chosen tactic with our coverage of the sexual abuse settlements.

First, we asked how many abuse cases the government settled and how much it paid to settle those cases. The justice department’s initial response was that doing so would identify abuse victims, a statement which is preposterous.

Now, the justice department won’t tell us why they changed they changed their minds. They have issued some reassuring boilerplate. And one government communications staffer assures us the government “is continuing to administer justice services in Yukon.”

What a relief. We were worried they were just going to shut down the courts.

Are human hearts really so weak? There are good people to be found everywhere in the public sector, yet the institutional inertia towards secrecy and bullshit seems inescapable.

Again, none of this is particular to the Yukon Liberals. The Yukon Party did the same kind of thing when they were in power. It is a defining feature of cabinet government: the minister is responsible for everything that goes on in his or her department. That means everyone who works for the department is on public relations duty at all times, and why governments spend all kinds of time and money fretting about how to be “on message” when they should really just be concerned with, you know, being honest.

Ah, you may ask, but since when has politics been honest? Probably never. But that shouldn’t stop us from imagining a world where institutions actually gave a damn about being transparent and responsible.

Any government is going to have to push through unpopular policies from time to time. Such is life. The well-paid grownups who run things volunteered to be where they are. In a lot of cases they fought like hell to get where they are. If a little accountability is too much for you, find another job.

Silver’s government is one that is desperate to be liked, but that is impossible. The institutions that rule our lives don’t care to explain themselves. Little wonder then that everywhere, it seems, cynicism and anger reign.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

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