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National Opinion Centre

Most of the Liberal caucus won’t be called to Rideau Hall on Wednesday morning—and there will be disappointment. Why not recruit some of these talented backbenchers to take the government’s agenda out to Canadians? We already have two excellent prototypes for such a job: Jason Kenney and Justin Trudeau.

Kenney, of course, is no Liberal, but he is a genuine political innovator. As Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, he quickly realized that many New Canadians are from cultures with relatively conservative social values—and he saw an opportunity.

By reaching out to them, Kenney thought he could establish a new relationship between New Canadians and the Conservative Party, based on conservative values. The plan was simple: lots of travel, time and talk.

As the affable “Minister for Curry in a Hurry,” Kenney attended hundreds of cultural events, took the time to learn about the traditions of Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and scores of other ethnic communities, and engaged them in discussion about their values and those of the Conservative government.

You don’t have to agree with Kenney’s values or policies to admire his dedication and skill; or to applaud his success at rallying these communities to the Conservative cause. He won over enough of them to give the Harper government its majority in 2011.

Justin Trudeau is another innovator on political engagement. After being elected leader of the Liberal Party, he refused to hang around in the Ottawa bubble, especially the House of Commons. Instead, he started traveling the country to meet and talk with Canadians.

Like Kenney, Trudeau realized lots of people out there were ready for a political conversation. They felt disconnected from the government in Ottawa and welcomed the chance to talk to about the issues on their minds, such as the environment, crime and the shrinking middle class.

For two years, Trudeau traveled extensively, meeting with thousands of people across the country. They got to know him and he learned a lot about them. Through these discussions, Trudeau honed his ideas and, come election time, the payoff was clear.

By the end of the campaign, he was connecting with Canadians in a way the other major leaders couldn’t match. He was confident, spontaneous and articulate. He moved back and forth between talk of aspirations and values and issues and policy seamlessly. He spoke to Canadians in language they understood.

There is nothing mysterious here. Trudeau did a lot of hard work, as did Kenney. By talking through the issues with their communities, they were following well-established rules of social change and learning.

Ideally, communities tend to agree on norms around important topics, such as gender roles or their relationship to the environment. When the consensus is disrupted, say, by moving to another country or growing evidence of climate change, people respond in different ways. The consensus begins to break down.

Dialogue and debate can help rebuild it. Communities are usually quite capable of finding ways to overcome their differences, but they need leadership.

People like Trudeau and Kenney are the spark that gets the discussion going. They act as a catalyst and facilitator during the early stages. And, as the dialogue progresses, they become the sounding board that articulates change back to the group, helping a new narrative to form.

Many issues on the government’s agenda would benefit from such a dialogue. What they need is the spark to get things started and a leader to see it through, which is where the new job — let’s call them envoys—comes in.

Envoys could be named for a number of key themes in the government’s agenda, such as clean technology, the integration of refugees or democratic reform. They would be sent out across the country to meet with stakeholder groups and interested Canadians.

Their job would not be to develop policy or deliver talking points, but to spark a conversation on their theme; and then to carry the discussion from group to group, building agreement around an emerging narrative.

Envoys should not be confused with parliamentary secretaries. The latter report to a particular minister and support him/her in departmental business.

An envoy’s mandate would be more thematic — focusing on, say, clean technology or refugee integration — and would aim at turning loose coalitions of groups and people into more cohesive networks around the theme.

This would not involve big, public processes. Their business would be carried out in low-key discussions with stakeholders and citizens, much like those of Kenney and Trudeau: community luncheons, university talks, conferences, festivals, special celebrations, and so on.

Envoys would likely work under the direction of a committee of ministers, as most of the themes would cut across a number of departments. Alternatively, if the government establishes its proposed new Delivery Units in the PMO, another option would be to link them to these Units.

As for how many envoys the government would need, that’s up for discussion, but they must be the right people for the job. Envoys would need excellent communications and listening skills; a capacity to facilitate discussion, and a willingness to do a lot of traveling to a lot of out-of-the-way places.

Finally, as Trudeau can certainly attest, such work would provide excellent training for ministers in waiting.

So the call to Rideau hall may come, but all in good time.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. He is currently the Government of Ontario’s principal advisor on its Open Dialogue Initiative. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 


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