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‘Nothing lifts the burden of accountability from the PM’: Ian Brodie on Justin Trudeau’s foreign interference testimony

Commentary

Justin Trudeau provided testimony on Wednesday to the Foreign Interference Commission as part of the national public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada’s elections. Parts of his testimony concerned if and to what extent he had been briefed on matters related to the meddling. The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer exchanged with Ian Brodie, the former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to get an insider’s perspective on the ins and outs of briefing a prime minister. You can find more of Brodie’s commentary and other writings at his Substack here.

SEAN SPEER: As a general rule, the prime minister seems to have suggested that he doesn’t rely on written briefs. He and his office instead typically use oral briefings including for (but not limited to) intelligence and national security matters. My experience with Prime Minister Harper is that he received approximately ten written briefing notes from PMO staff and the Privy Council Office each day. Is that consistent with your own experience, and if so, what do you think is lost by minimizing the use of written briefs?

IAN BRODIE: It’s true, different prime ministers get their briefings in different ways. Mr. Trump responded to “killer graphics” as his CIA director said. In 2006, civil servants had to get used to Mr. Harper reading a lot of long, detailed written notes. Mr. Chretien liked short notes, to the point. Mr. Harper liked more background material. He got so many notes about the 2007 equalization reform, they filled an entire drawer of a filing cabinet! I really looked forward to days when we only got ten briefing notes from PCO.

Written notes had a big advantage. Mr. Harper initialized every note that he read. We knew the date he received every note and the date he returned it for filing. There was never any doubt about what he’d been briefed and when it had been briefed.

Oral briefings are fine, but you need a notetaker to record what was said. With really critical information, I prefer to have a paper trail. Plus, if the PM reads the preliminary material ahead of time, the briefing is more productive.

SEAN SPEER: With respect to specific intelligence briefing notes, the prime minister said that while he reads them when he can, he instead expects advisers to tell him if there’s something important. How does that approach converge or diverge with your experience as the prime minister’s chief of staff?

IAN BRODIE: Every PM relies on others to decide what he needs to see or hear. The fact Mr. Harper read a lot of written briefings every day meant you could send a lot of material his way. In my day, the clerk of the Privy Council had direct access with written notes and verbal briefings. So did I and several PMO staffers. Cabinet ministers, too. That meant there were fewer points of failure. It was rare for a single person to overlook something and leave the PM out of the loop.

But, nothing lifts the burden of accountability from the PM. He appoints people to make sure he knows what he needs to know. I am sure that several people said “Hey, the PM needs to know that China is working hard to get this guy elected as a Liberal,” or “Hey, the Chinese might be threatening an MP’s family because of a vote he took in the House of Commons.” In the case of Michael Chong, I expect he was briefed about threats to the Chong family. I still don’t understand why he didn’t instruct someone to check on Chong’s family, report back to him, and then let Chong know what was going on.

SEAN SPEER: What was Prime Minister Harper’s normal process for consuming national security and intelligence information? Did he have dedicated time each week? Did it typically come in the form of written briefs or oral briefings?

IAN BRODIE: That changed over time. The process became more formal after I left the government. He got a weekly written briefing from the intelligence assessments section at PCO. His various national security advisors would also brief. I visited the main intelligence agencies to make sure we were getting all the right information from them.

SEAN SPEER: In addition to being a chief of staff, you’ve been involved in leadership races and party nominations. The Liberal Party doesn’t prohibit non-residents from participating in its internal voting. The prime minister said that that’s intentional to “encourage wide participation in nomination races.” What are the risks in your mind to such a party policy?

IAN BRODIE: Governments should let political parties govern themselves as they see fit.

Back in 2006-07, we had informal discussions with the opposition parties about requiring proof of citizenship to vote in a federal election. They were opposed. We couldn’t even get an agreement to require photo ID at the ballot box.

Without a photo ID requirement, it’s hard to enforce a citizenship requirement, even when you set one as my party does.

Remember, in the Conservative Party, we let youth members vote even if they aren’t yet old enough to vote in a general election. Every party has wider rules for internal votes than the Elections Act does for general elections.

However, I personally think allowing non-citizens to vote in a party nomination or leadership election is very risky. They are vulnerable to all sorts of threats, as we have seen at the inquiry. Political parties pick the candidates we get to vote for at election time and pick the leaders of the parties that could become prime minister. To my mind, the qualifications to vote in nomination and leadership races should be the same as the qualifications to vote in a general election. Maybe we should have slightly wider rules for a riding board of directors. But when a party is picking candidates and leaders, that should be a tight process.

Geoff Russ: The next election will hinge on affordability issues. Pierre Poilievre is poised to capitalize

Commentary

This week’s Conservative Strong and Free Networking Conference will feature Pierre Poilievre giving a keynote speech on Thursday morning before a gathering of conservative activists, thinkers, politicians, and party members from across Canada. It represents the perfect opportunity for Poilievre to emphatically hammer one of the key issues fueling his remarkable rise and the Conservative Party’s resurgence: affordability. 

Affordability is currently Poilievre’s greatest political advantage and Justin Trudeau’s most glaring weakness. But it shouldn’t be understood as merely a transitory issue. Addressing the country’s arduous cost of living—particularly for working-class Canadians—will be one of the country’s key policy challenges over the coming decade. It therefore represents an opportunity for Poilievre not just to become prime minister, but to reforge his party’s coalition to include working-class voters, for a generation. 

Anglo-American politics have been marked for the past decade or longer by what’s sometimes referred to as a “realignment” along the lines of educational polarization. In effect, we’re seeing university or college-educated professionals move to the political Left and non-university or college-educated members of the working class move to the Right. This trend is exemplified by Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—including in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin—as well as the British Conservative Party’s breach of the so-called “red wall” in Northern England in the country’s 2019 elections.  

There’s plenty of evidence that Canada has experienced similar political developments over the several election cycles, dating back arguably to the Reform Party and today’s Conservative Party. In the 2021 federal election, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole attempted to hasten these trends to extend the party’s reach to working-class Canadians including with policy proposals such as mandated worker representation on corporate boards. 

Yet it’s been Poilievre’s disciplined focus on affordability that’s bringing a lot of working-class members into the Conservative fold. Polling for instance shows that the Poilievre-led Conservatives now outperform the other parties with members of private-sector trade unions. 

The Conservatives’ success in reaching a broad coalition of voters—including the working class—conjures images of Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the 1997 British election. In that campaign, the Blair-led Labour Party’s signature campaign slogan was “Things can only get better!”, which was ripped from an early 1990s radio hit that served as the campaign theme song. The song included the memorable lines: 

…and do you feel scared? I do! But I won’t stop and falter! And if we throw it all away, things can only get better…

It would be a fitting soundtrack to Poilievre’s 2025 election campaign if Blair had not famously co-opted it almost 30 years ago. It is difficult to imagine things getting much worse as far as affordability goes in Canada. 

The Trudeau government’s supporters or foreign columnists can trot out all the favourable statistics they like, but Canadians remember recent and happier times. They would prefer a future that resembled the more normal past, instead of the end of the month when many renters will fork over an average of $1,922 to not be evicted from their one-bedroom apartment.  

Certainly, not all of Canada’s unaffordability issues began with Trudeau or his government. But their inability to help fix everyday problems for working and middle-class Canadians is a failure they have to own. There’s compelling evidence in particular the government’s high spending and high immigration rates have contributed to the inflationary environment in which Canadians now find themselves. 

Herein lies the opportunity for Poilievre: the affordability crisis has clearly been key to his political ascendancy, one that has included expanding the Conservative Party’s voter coalition to include working-class voters. 

The 2015 federal election proved that the Conservatives have a rock-solid traditional base in Western Canada that all but guarantees them a shot of winning any given election. However, adding youthful, working-class, and swing voters to their voting pool could deliver a Conservative supermajority that has not been elected since the 1980s. 

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre greets supporters after giving remarks at a press conference in Mississauga, Ont., Sunday, April 7, 2024. Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press.

Conservative parties in Canada have a history of grand coalitions that have often delivered enormous majorities, only for them to implode and usher in a generation of Liberal governments. Sir Robert Borden’s 1917 majority absorbed the pro-conscription wing of the Liberals, only for it to fall apart in 1921, ushering in nearly continuous Liberal governments until 1957. 

In 1984, Brian Mulroney delivered another large majority with the votes of alienated Westerners and nationalist Quebecers. That coalition fell apart as well and ushered in another 13 years of Liberal governments. 

It’s a powerful reminder that the Conservative Party’s relationship with prospective working-class voters cannot be merely transactional. Britain, again, highlights that politicians cannot take the realignment for granted, given that the Conservative Party is poised to suffer a major electoral defeat, in part because the working-class members who voted for it in 2019 are now abandoning the party. Put differently: political trends in Britain confirm that working-class voters behave like any other swing voters who punish incumbents who fail to improve their quality of life. 

Poilievre’s speech last month in Vancouver signaled that he understands the opportunities and risks here. His line that his “daily obsession will be about what is good for the working-class people in this country” is a sign that he’s determined to avoid the fate of his British brethren.

The key question will be how these speeches and comments come to manifest themselves in a pro-working-class policy agenda. Frankly, Canadians of all stripes will need to feel their quality of life improve over a government’s term in office, including in their monthly paycheques, rent, and mortgage payments. Phone bills will have to come down, and $70 worth of groceries should result in more fully stuffed grocery bags, hopefully in reliable and thin plastic ones. 

Given the rampant affordability concerns currently capturing Canadian attention, the government that oversees those improvements will win the loyalty of a generation, regardless of class.