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Does Justin Trudeau risk being overexposed?

In prioritizing public appearances, the Prime Minister may have a hard time finding balance


 

It’s as though he never stopped campaigning.

Nearly a year since Justin Trudeau was propelled into office on a near-narcotic wave of optimism, he remains the personification of “sunny ways,” the Liberal party’s de facto mantra, mode de vie and campaign slogan.

It was on display last fall, when Trudeau was mobbed by civil servants after his government “unmuzzled” government scientists, thus allowing them to speak freely with the media. There it was again in December, when a room of First Nations leaders erupted in cheers when Trudeau emphasized Canada’s “sacred obligation” to the rights of First Nations communities across the country. And again this summer, when Trudeau photobombed fellow vacationers, always with that smile and sometimes without a shirt.

We see it almost constantly with the general public. From the moment he set foot on the streets of Montreal for the city’s annual Pride parade, Trudeau basked in the adoring embrace of the crowd. He smiled, waved, shook hands, posed for pictures, brandished a rainbow flag and otherwise became as fabulously sweaty as the multicoloured throngs of Pride goers swarming around him. It would be the same atmosphere of well-documented adoration a week later, when Trudeau made a show of attending the last Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, Ont.

“I like the energy, the proximity to people,” he says, at the parade’s starting point, dressed in white pants, grey sneakers and a turquoise button-down shirt. “In my job, I have a range of experiences, with heavy serious work mixed with moments where I get to share in this kind of thing. It’s about finding the right balance.”

Has he found it yet?

“It’s a moving target.”

There is substance behind the flash, those around him insist. In interviews with Trudeau and members of his inner circle, a picture emerges of a Prime Minister who has adopted the insouciance and flesh-pressing humanity in crowds that so defined the tenure of his father, Pierre Trudeau. He has also taken on his father’s ethic of intense work juxtaposed by daily family time, weekends at the cottage and an ironclad edict that he get eight hours sleep every night. He has taken a total of 25 vacation days in his 10 months in office, according to Prime Minister’s Office staff.

CANADA, Montreal: Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau takes part in Montreal's Pride Parade on August 14, 2016. The parade took place on Rene-Levesque st. A minute of silence was observed in memory of Orlando's shooting victims. (Cristian Mijea/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in Montreal’s Pride Parade on August 14, 2016. The parade took place on Rene-Levesque st. A minute of silence was observed in memory of Orlando’s shooting victims. (Cristian Mijea/CP)

Yet when it comes to the mechanics of governing, the younger Trudeau has moved away from his father’s approach, in which he and an all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office dictated the agenda and policy decisions. Pierre Trudeau’s top-down style of governing was enduring—and perfected, most recently, by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

Under Harper, the PMO was at once protector of the prime minister’s image and enforcer of his whims, decisions and diktats. Under Trudeau, the PMO has been cut from 100 staff members to about 65, and the power shifted to his ministers. “I govern by cabinet,” Trudeau says.

The government is working on or has fulfilled 106 of 220 electoral promises, according to TrudeauMetre.ca, which tracks such things. When the doors are closed and the cameras off, his advisers and cabinet ministers say a different, seemingly less carefree Trudeau emerges—one who is both exacting and consensus building. “He can be very playful and he can be deadly serious,” says Roland Paris, who until recently worked as a foreign affairs adviser in the PMO.

Related: The marketing of Justin Trudeau

Yet as popular and resolutely positive as his government is, all of it risks being undone. There’s the matter of its $113-billion gamble on deficit spending over the next five years. Or, as his senior adviser Mathieu Bouchard readily admits, Trudeau might suffer from sheer overexposure. “How much rope does he have? That’s something you look at after the fact and say, ‘That’s how much he’s had.’ You don’t know until you’ve hit it.”

“The major stumbling block for both the Conservatives and the New Democrats, however, remained Pierre Trudeau. The press continued to follow each of his moves, providing their readers and viewers with a steady stream of Trudeau memorabilia,” read the 1969 edition of the Canadian Annual Review.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his daughter Ella-Grace enjoy a ride during their visit to the Calgary Stampede, in Calgary on Friday, July 15, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his daughter Ella-Grace enjoy a ride during their visit to the Calgary Stampede, in Calgary on Friday, July 15, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

It might have been written 47 years later about his son. In the first 10 months in office, Trudeau has generated 27 per cent more media coverage across the country than Harper’s first 10 months, according to a report by Quebec-based media monitoring firm Influence Communication.

Along with the constant adoring crowds, Justin Trudeau has also benefitted from an opposition rendered disorganized in the wake of last year’s election. The Conservative party will have an interim leader until May 2017; NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair already has one foot out the door, having been rejected by his own party members last April.

Coverage of prime ministers and their governments tends to drop off after an election: Harper’s fell off by 79 per cent one month after the 2006 election. Brian Mulroney’s coverage dropped by 69 per cent in 1988, and Jean Chrétien’s by 30 per cent in 1993.

Related: Why the opposition is responsible for all the talk of shirtless Trudeau

Media coverage of this Prime Minister since the 2015 election has actually increased by 40 per cent, according to the report. And unlike in Harper’s case, it is overwhelmingly favourable. “In Canadian and foreign media, the tone used to describe Trudeau is far more positive,” says Influence Communication president Jean-François Dumas. “The People magazine-style coverage he gets plays a major role in this.”

It’s perhaps why Trudeau’s appearances at Pride parades, Tragically Hip concerts and at the Toronto Zoo, where in March he cuddled two panda cubs and birthed the mother of all Internet memes, feel like tightly scripted displays of the Prime Minister’s cheerful spontaneity. Under Trudeau, such things have become part of the job—though he couches it in different language.

“The social media age means that people are used to feeling connected and they want to see their leaders out and articulating the values that they stand for. When I show up for a Pride parade or at a multicultural park celebration or whatever, these are articulations of things that are values that we all share,” Trudeau says.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, pets a sheep at the Junior Sheep Show during Old Home Week events in Charlottetown, P.E.I., on Tuesday, August 16, 2016. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, pets a sheep at the Junior Sheep Show during Old Home Week events in Charlottetown, P.E.I., on Tuesday, August 16, 2016. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Harper’s embrace of social media was awkward at best. For Trudeau, it has been a key part of his ascension. He first used his personal Twitter account on March 30, 2008. Ostensibly a reluctant tweeter at first, Trudeau came to embrace the platform and its tendency toward broadcasting 140-word inanities. He wished Chuck Norris a happy 70th birthday, kibitzed about his moustache grown in the name of cancer research and sporadically cheered on the Montreal Canadiens. “Wohoo! Rockets in my pockets! I love Hallowe’en,” he tweeted on Oct. 29, 2009.

Today, the @JustinTrudeau account is overseen and largely written by a small team headed up by Dave Sommer, a PMO staffer with the title of “digital creative lead.” Less frivolous and far more bilingual, the account nonetheless provides a breezy account of Trudeau’s thoughts, activities and pronouncements. It is also a repository of soft focus (and often partisan) pictures of Trudeau scooping ice cream in P.E.I. and polishing the Grey Cup with his sleeve in Ottawa.

If @JustinTrudeau is the party, @CanadianPM is the suit and tie. Maintained by the Privy Council Office, the account is a far more straightforward take on the Prime Minister, from trade missions to visits with foreign dignitaries and politicians to commemoration ceremonies. It has 51,000 followers. @JustinTrudeau has nearly two million.

Both accounts carried the news of Trudeau’s appearance at the Tragically Hip show last weekend. @JustinTrudeau featured pictures of Trudeau signing an outsized farewell card to the band, and of him hugging Hip frontman Gord Downie. “PM Trudeau attends Tragically Hip’s final show. Watch this historic moment live,” read the @CanadianPM feed—tying, inadvertently or not, Trudeau’s attendance to the Hip’s indelible legacy. Photographers from Canadian outlets were barred from the venue. Trudeau’s personal photographer snapped away unfettered.

(In Sudbury, 450 km northwest, much of the Liberal cabinet was in preliminary meetings for a planned retreat, which would begin the next day upon Trudeau’s arrival.)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and his daughter Ella Grace Trudeau, hidden, paddle in a canoe during the "Paddle The Rouge" event at Rouge Beach Park, following a federal government announcement to amend the"Rouge Nation Urban Park Act", in Toronto, Saturday June 18, 2016. (Mark Blinch/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and his daughter Ella Grace Trudeau, hidden, paddle in a canoe during the “Paddle The Rouge” event at Rouge Beach Park, following a federal government announcement to amend the”Rouge Nation Urban Park Act”, in Toronto, Saturday June 18, 2016. (Mark Blinch/CP)

Trudeau appears genuinely shocked when asked about the perception that he is rarely behind a desk. “I spend an awful lot of time behind a desk. The work that I do as Prime Minister has me on phone calls, conference calls, briefing notes, briefing books all the time. There’s an awful lot to do, and I’m glad to do it. But you also have to do it in a way that stays connected with Canadians and in order to do that, I’m continuing what I’ve been doing for years, which is doing the hard work of getting out, meeting with Canadians, listening to them, talking with them, and being part of this country that I have the responsibility to serve.”

Cheery tweets and campaign-style jaunts into adoring hoi polloi are the most visible part of a government that has substantially changed its course and tone in less than a year. On foreign policy, for example, the government has shifted to a more multilateral stance than the previous Conservative government. “I think that his view was that the Conservative’s foreign policy was ineffective more than anything else,” says Paris, who worked in different capacities for the Liberal party and the Trudeau government until this past June. Under Trudeau, the country has re-engaged with the United Nations, lifted sanctions against Iran and attempted to repair strained relations with China.

Domestically, government ministries have been given more latitude and, in some cases, more money. At Status of Women Canada, a relatively small ministry with a full-time staff of 99, the arrival of the Liberals has brought “an enormous change in tone,” according to a department source. The minister, Patty Hajdu, is the first in the department’s 40-year history to have full ministerial authority without another portfolio attached.

In November 2015, shortly after the new government was sworn in, the words “advocacy” and “research” reappeared in the ministry’s mandate. The ministerial mandate letter itself, which remained secret under the previous government, was published on the government website (as were the mandate letters of all government ministries). Along with a modest budget increase, the ministry received $23.3 million over five years for “more consistent gender-based analysis.”

Past prime ministers, Harper very much included, usually had their fingerprints on the more substantial legislation. Trudeau, though, has taken a hands-off approach and delegated authority to his ministers on such matters. In April, the government introduced its medical-aid-in-dying legislation. Written in response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision striking down the country’s prohibition of doctor-assisted death, the legislation was at once important and fraught.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who co-wrote the legislation with Health Minister Jane Philpott, says Trudeau stayed largely in the background, despite its relative importance. “His was one of many voices that we heard in crafting the legislation,” Wilson-Raybould said. “We had formal and informal discussions where the Prime Minister would check in with Jane and I just to see how things were going. He always made himself available and always made it clear that we could bounce ideas off of him.”

Ministers are usually required to give presentations at caucus meetings every Wednesday morning. Trudeau is almost always there. “The Prime Minister always gives his perspective,” says Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly. “He’s not a micromanager. He always says: be available to the media. Be positive, avoid excessive partisanry. Humility is very important to him.”

Justin Trudeau sits down for an interview at a table on the 46th floor of Montreal’s Place Ville Marie. He nods confidently and, at the behest of a mindful aide, flicks his hair off his forehead.

“I haven’t had my post-vacation haircut yet,” he laments.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plays a game of foosball at the Boys and Girls Club in Toronto with students from St. Mary's School. The PM announced a budget increase for summer jobs program for students to $113 million. (Chris So/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plays a game of foosball at the Boys and Girls Club in Toronto with students from St. Mary’s School. The PM announced a budget increase for summer jobs program for students to $113 million. (Chris So/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Downstairs, 46 floors below, a cortège of 10 black cars await to take him to the Pride parade, where he will be mobbed. He’ll be mobbed again the next day, in Newfoundland, in P.E.I. and Toronto after that, then in Kingston when he strode, resplendent in denim, through the throngs outside the Tragically Hip concert.

Liberals bask in Trudeau’s honeymoon, which has lasted well into his first year in office. Others wonder when and how badly it’s going to end.

And it’s not just cynics. Economists have lamented the slow pace of the Canadian economic recovery. It has lagged behind the United States, shedding 31,200 jobs in July alone. Exports are flat despite a low dollar, while the country’s oil patch languishes in low crude prices and successive natural disasters in Fort McMurrary. A Conservative attack ad had Trudeau on a milk carton, suggesting the Prime Minister had gone missing.

Trudeau says he doesn’t worry about his own popularity. “Polls will go up, polls will go down. My focus is, what are we doing that is the right thing. I’ve pulled together a great team, we are working very hard on that, we’re remaining engaged, we’re listening to Canadians, we’re working with the top scientists and engaging the civil service in terms of finding solutions for how we move forward,” he says.

Besides, help is on the way, in the form of targeted middle-class tax cuts and billions of dollars in economic stimulus. “These are things that are setting us on the right path. None of them were ever designed to be quick fixes. They are things that will get our economy on the right footing for the next decade.”

How long is it going to take?

“It’s going to take the time it does.”

Few interviews with Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister are complete without a stirring (and unmistakenly self-serving) narrative, and it comes moments later, when he’s asked about his pro-immigration, pro-trade government’s place in an increasingly isolationist, nationalist world.

“Canadians made a choice that people around the world would make if there was a strong, compelling authentic narrative of how we’re better than our fears and insecurities. Listening to Canadians for years, getting out there and working hard and engaging with them told me that we should trust in the better angels of our nature, and that’s exactly what we put forward.”

An hour later, Trudeau is arms deep in the Montreal Pride crowd. Other politicians momentarily appear at his side, through circumstance or otherwise. All five candidates for the separatist Parti Québécois find themselves campaigning in his shadow. Montreal mayor and former Liberal cabinet minister Denis Coderre, himself no stranger to the camera, is reduced to being Trudeau’s hype man as the Prime Minister strolls along Boulevard René Lévesque.

Mathieu Bouchard walks 10 m behind his boss, dressed in a comparatively modest red polo shirt and jeans. The 39-year-old has worked for Trudeau since 2015. Since the election campaign, he has become used to shaking his head at the kind of spectacle playing out within spitting distance from him. “He’s got so much energy,” Bouchard says.

The boss is well grounded, Bouchard insists. Trudeau gets two nights a week to spend time with his kids—there’s a make-up night if one is missed. He sleeps regular hours. He goes to the cottage regularly, where staff has set up secured phone, email and Internet so he can work. “Harrington Lake is his refuge, where he can let go,” Bouchard says of the Prime Minister’s official retreat in Gatineau, Que. [Trudeau’s wife] Sophie, it’s basically her job to make plans for the family.”

As for the Trudeau spectacle, Bouchard doesn’t know how long it will last. “Is there a risk of over-exposure? There’s always a risk. But he’s conscious of it. It’s in his brain,” he says.

Twenty minutes later, Trudeau and his entourage shoot down a side street into flashing lights and idling limousines. Soon enough, they’ll be another crowd waiting for him.


TACTILE TRUDEAU

Justin Trudeau has never shied away from getting close to constituents—or colleagues—when he’s out in public. A few of his more personal moments caught on camera:


 

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