How Justin Trudeau is changing the rules of politics

Evan Solomon on the new political long shot

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to deliver a statement before the start of a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 1, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to deliver a statement before the start of a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 1, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

When Justin Trudeau admitted that his government was screwing up the electoral reform file, my first thought was of Steph Curry, the once underrated player on the Golden State Warriors who has transformed the game of basketball. Like Curry, who deploys the high-risk three-point shot the way other players rely on the conservative layup, Trudeau is changing how the political game is played and putting massive poll numbers up on the board.

“We were perhaps behaving in a way that was resembling more the previous government,” Trudeau told stunned reporters as he explained that he would cede to opposition requests to more fairly distribute seats on his electoral reform committee—a sudden and surprising climbdown. Did Trudeau just compare himself to Stephen Harper? Yes, he did. This was after he’d already reversed course on the assisted-dying bill’s Motion 6, which would have limited opposition debate. And after he’d apologized—numerous times—for the infamous elbow incident. Trudeau was just doing what he has done since the campaign: breaking the five cardinal rules of political communication.

1. The flip-flop rule: Reversing decisions makes you look indecisive. Stick to your promises or people will stop trusting you.

2. The loser rule: Never repeat your negatives because you end up validating them. It goes without saying that you don’t compare yourself to the man you just defeated.

3. The blabber rule: Once you’re explaining, you’re losing. Keep messages simple.

4. The message-control rule: Never let the opposition or caucus take over the agenda. Leaders control; leaders look strong.

5. The wimp rule: Never give in to the opposition’s criticisms. Their job is to oppose. Your job is to lead.

Stephen Harper codified these into a form of political brutalism. “The standard Tory-machine approach to public messaging involved defining a simple storyline, driving that storyline in all places and on all occasions, never wavering from the message and the mass disciplined dissemination of that narrative through numerous channels,” Tim Powers, the vice-chairman of Summa Strategies told me. Sometimes it worked. When Harper first came to power, he had a “promise made, promise kept” mantra. But that didn’t last. “As the credibility of the Conservatives was wearing thin, the automaton sales pitch was also losing its gloss,” Powers says. “Trudeau gambled that a little bit of vulnerability and appearance of humanity was a better potion—he was proven right.”

Related: The legislative fog of Liberal politics

It was more than just a bit of vulnerability. During the campaign, the Liberals released an ad where Trudeau broke the loser rule and repeated the negative about his inexperience: “Stephen Harper says I’m not ready.” The Conservatives were thrilled. But instead of backfiring, it was a hit.

Look at the debate swirling around Canada’s CF-18 jets. Trudeau’s government is openly flouting the flip-flop rule. The Liberals promised to have an open and transparent competition to find a new jet, but now the government is preparing to sole-source the Super Hornet, exactly what Liberals criticized the Conservatives for doing with the F-35. I suspect they will back down in some fashion—after all, that’s the pattern. Will the deficit be $10 billion this year as promised? No. Way bigger. Did the government get 25,000 Syrian refugees in by Christmas? No. Will the Liberals settle the lawsuit with wounded veterans over the government’s alleged obligation to them, as they promised? Nope. This week, the six veterans are back in court. Why isn’t any of this hurting the party?

The answer is the authenticity gap. Trudeau’s great political insight is that people prefer an authentic response over a scripted one, even if it breaks a promise. “Younger voters want a more authentic and real connection to the people they are voting for,” says Ian Capstick, the founder of Mediastyle. “When everybody has the same ability to ‘control the message’ through social media, the ability to lose control of the message becomes the professional’s move.” In other words, less control is more.

Politics is not so different to sports. In 2010, the Golden State Warriors, a loser franchise, was bought by a group of Silicon Valley data junkies. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in a fascinating article, the new owners saw an underused part of the game: the three-point shooting line. Established in 1979, the line was meant to reward high-risk shots with one extra point. Until recently, only 22 per cent of shots taken in a game were from behind the three-point line. But the Warriors owners found the difference in success rates between shooting a bit inside the line and a bit outside the line was minuscule. The results, however, were game-changing. As Ben Cohen writes: “By moving back just a few inches before shooting, a basketball player could improve his rate of return by 43 per cent.”

That changed everything. This year, Curry sunk 402 three-point shots. The former record was 286—which he also held. His team broke the record for most wins in the regular season in NBA history.

Is the authenticity gap the political equivalent of the three-point shot? Maybe. Every time Trudeau fades back and launches another of his high-risk moon shots—legalizing pot, pricing carbon, buying navy ships, changing the way elections are won—you think he’s going to fail.

There are misses, for sure, lots of them, as Trudeau is the first to admit. But when he scores, he scores big. The age of political incrementalism, the policy layup shot, is over. Trudeau is breaking the rules and hitting all net. See you in the second quarter.


How Justin Trudeau is changing the rules of politics

  1. I think this article is indicative of how far from reality the Ottawa bubble is – media are as much a part of the mechanics of politics that are offensive to the public and resist change despite protesting that they want change! I have seen so many examples of this post-Trudeau. Evan Solomon has correctly identified what the “rules” were in Ottawa bubble – what he and the rest of the bubble did not understand – in general the public sees through the media lines in a split second. In any field of work, the customer or the citizen far prefers transparency and admitting an error is seen as a sign of strength,not weakness. Sticking to a path regardless of new information that may mean a course correction is sensible is again, not flip flopping but working with evidence. How often did the media criticise the Harper government for not listening to the evidence but plowing ahead with bad info? Come on, while no government will achieve the heights of perfection, let’s give Trudeau and gang kudos for aiming high!

    • Every team goes through growing pains, sometimes a little fog gets in the way of war, and since the MSM has given Ezra and his Bullhorn news(conservatives 6pack)media credibility, I have lost a lot of credibility of most the MSM. So I agree with your post sand&surf, it undresses the cynicism of the MSM, always waiting for a car crash, and let me add, since Trudeau has been elected, I notice the country no longer has these tendencies to be as angry anymore, the only anger comes from the conservatives with their wedge politics which they use for the explicit purpose, only to fund raise and raise fear and anger. They(cons) had ten years to get things right, but Harper blew the parties political capital.

      • Those veterans who were screwed over after Trudeau made a promise and broke it are angry. Many are angry over the gutless physician-assisted suicide bill he wrote and passed. Those who smoke cannabis aren’t that happy with the crack down on people and businesses that are being levied criminal charges and shut down. First Nations people are angry that they aren’t getting enough mental health programs. I guess it is in the eye of the beholder. You are not angry but then I don’t believe Justin could do anything to anger you even if he morphed into Harper in front of our eyes…as long as he apologizes for the transformation and promises to morph back to his nice self.

        • I am not even sure what your point is?

  2. Fawning much Evan? I’m a big fan of your writing, but this is a bit much.

    When in the past did you ever give this kind of pass to the CPC? In the past 6 months, Liberal mis-steps have been ignored — or worse — critically underplayed by the mainstream media, so as not to tarnish the new leader’s reputation.

    Other than this, and a few other publications, comments have been deleted and the routine avoidance of reporting serious gaffes favour the current government to an extent I’ve never seen in this country. Journalists are now heavily partisan and don’t mind if readers know it. They believe fervently that the left is on the side of the truth.

    The worst example comes from a major daily, where they indicated the comment section had become a toxic environment, so they shut it down, 3 weeks after the election. This, after 10 years of vitriol towards Mr. Harper that didn’t seem of much concern to them at the time. Now there is no forum for any pushback of biased and cherry-picked reporting on their pages.

    To date, Macleans seems to be clearly in the Liberal camp: where [and I read this site several times a day], 3 articles are moderately to the right and 7 are overwhelmingly supportive of the left.

    Macleans has lost its balance. And as an avowed centrist [I’ve voted Liberal, NDP and CPC in the past], I find that deeply unsettling.

    • Elizabeth15 wrote: “The worst example comes from a major daily, where they indicated the comment section had become a toxic environment, so they shut it down, 3 weeks after the election. This, after 10 years of vitriol towards Mr. Harper that didn’t seem of much concern to them at the time. Now there is no forum for any pushback of biased and cherry-picked reporting on their pages.”

      You really need to look beyond the end of your nose. The accelerating shut-down of comment pages started outside Canada, continues outside Canada, and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with being kind to the Liberals in Canada.

      To imply otherwise is pure Trumpism – a falsehood wrapped in a sly rumour, designed to deceive the gullible.

      • Tangler you are correct. The “no comments” trend started in the States a few years ago before the last election, and was picked up by the New Yorker. Since then many Cdn publications have followed suit. That doesn’t detract from my argument that it insulates and benefits the Liberals hugely in this country.

        Further, it also doesn’t nullify the fact that this particular newspaper I was speaking of, gave their reason for eliminating comments, SOLELY as being because of “vitriol” in the comments section.

        My point was the vitriol was at a height during the Harper years, where they had absolutely and UNequivocally, no problem enduring it.

        • How does shutting down a comments section benefit the LPC? Surely you don’t think people read comments in order to be persuaded one way or the other?

          In any event, I have long believed Harper’s greatest achievement was convincing his minions that the Canadian media is biased in favour of the LPC. Now people who claim objectivity by virtue of the claim they have voted for each party in the past actually believe they truly are objective. It is to laugh…

          • People tend to complain rather then compliment Gayle1; so when only one side is afforded the ability to complain or compliment the rest of us are left with at best a sided message. As to your comment of “Surely you don’t think people read comments in order to be persuaded” – please then explain the goal of advertising/marketing industry for surely the number of touch points a person experiences has nothing to do with the decision choices they make – right.

            Your second paragraph is somewhat confusing for me in contrast to your first. My understanding of the situation is thus: comment sections where left open to complaint about the Harper government and are now closed to complaint while the JT government is in power. Please see earlier comment on advertising and marketing.

            I do agree with you on your point towards the use of the term objectivity and therefore its adjective root objective. I’m not sure how anyone can be objective during a political campaign as the citizenry is hardly ever given facts during the process, just promises. Objectivity requires actual facts and so yes I agree it is laughable.

          • All sides are afforded the ability to complain. Apparently only one side was abusing that ability. There is a difference between posting legitimate complaints about the conduct of a politician, and posting hatred and lies against identifiable groups.

            If you do not understand my second paragraph, then perhaps you are one of the people who were deluded into believing Harper’s little paranoid conspiracy theory about the media.

        • @Elizabeth15: The spittle-laden, mindless hatred routinely voiced by the extreme right wing under the protection of free speech rights led to the closure of most comment sections, largely due to the fear of libel laws.

          If the backlash against such Trumpism has led to a benefit for the more rational citizens, so be it.

          Your determination to link the sensible push-back against right wing hatred to some sort of ridiculous conspiracy against your conservative leaders is truly pathetic.

          • Tangler, in the US, on the right, Rubio was more my cup of tea. And in this country, on the left, it would have been Martin Cochon, someone who had put in some serious backbencher time, but sadly, didn’t have the name recognition/celebrity status that voters on the left clamor for.

            But your linking mindless hatred with only those on the right of the spectrum is naive beyond the pale.

            Mindless hatred is not the sole domain of the right.

            Go to the comment section of the Globe and Mail to read posts from both sides. Then come back here and tell me vitriol doesn’t exist in equal measures.

        • The vitriol was anti- Liberal comments in the Sun papers. It was anti-Liberal vitriol during the Harper years there as well. It was never anti-Harper.

    • Elizabeth15 I think it is healthy and balanced if the media takes a straight forward approach to commenting on the government of the day. To me that means criticizing when criticism is warranted, giving kudos when warranted and commenting honestly on any strategy or philosophy that the government is employing that is noteworthy (such as this article).

      I remind you that the CPC was responsible for elevating extreme partisanship to levels previously unheard of and so the current Tone of many media Venus is simply an attempt to return to a more balanced structure.

      I believe the current government is receiving a fair share of criticism from the media (including Evan) but I believe it is also acceptable to most Canadians for the media to give credit where credit is due.

      on the matter of shutting down the comments section in newspapers, I believe one of the first Canadian papers to do that was the SUN chain. The vitriol there was profound and given the number of legal issues that the SUN chain encountered, I can understand their decision.

      If you take the time to read the comments over at the National Post you will see a horrifying display of extreme political partisanship that is worthy of the dis functional situation that has crippled the Republican Party in the U.S.
      One commenter, a few days back was wishing tha Prime Minister’s plane would crash with him and his family on board.
      This comment went unchallenged.

      While I was one of the vocal group who criticised Mr. Harper’s policies and his attacks on our Democracy – (the omnibus bills with non related stealth-legislation buried deeply within as well as his wedge and dog-whistle politics)
      I am also prepared to criticised the current party in power when they deviate from a reasonable path.
      I believe the media would be right to take this same approach.

      • I’ll have to push back a little on your post ABH.

        I have read the National Post, The Star, Huffington Post, Sun and Globe and Mail for years now online. So I’m familiar with the incendiary nature of the comments from both left and right.

        To single out the Sun for vitriol, when comments in The Star at the time were equally heinous from the left, is a bit rich.

        With respect to the National Post – yes I read that horrible and evil comment myself; it was totally unacceptable and should be investigated.

        Lastly you say you’re prepared to criticize the current party when they deviate – haven’t they already done so on several serious issues? Did you speak out? If so, on which particular issue?

        Anyhow, thanks for your very respectful post.

        • The Star comment section was always dominated by a small group of right wing commentators. Most others seldom bothered to even comment there. More fabrications from you.

        • You have very little concept of reality. There is certainly some vitriol from the progressive voters but it doesn’t compare to the Reformers. Remember “you are a useless piece of shit” ? Remember “you cheat on your taxes”? I have canvassed for the NDP and Liberals in the past and have knocked on over 6000 doors in the last 2 elections and very rarely get any rude or ignorant people that support the NDP or Liberals. But the Reformers are a different story. Approx. 1 in 20 of them are rude, insulting, uncivil, ignorant. There is no comparison.

    • ‘ so they shut it down, 3 weeks after the election. This, after 10 years of vitriol towards Mr. Harper ‘

      The newspaper chain that closed its comment section were the Sun papers. There was never ’10 years of vitriol towards Mr. Harper’, not even close. The Sun was and remains completely biased towards the Conservatives and endlessly spewed vitriol against the Liberals during Harper time in office. Both the commenters, the columnists and the journalists were always pro-Harper dispite your claims of the opposite

      But don’t let reality interfere with your ranting.

    • Even the national post has a positive article about the assisted dying legislation. I would hardly consider them leftist. Maybe the government is doing something right.

  3. The only that has changed with Trudeau is that Canada’s adoring Toronto based media will cheerlead for him even when he screws up, which he has been doing with worrysome frequency.

    This article is a prime example.

  4. Very interesting article. What I find so sad and very curious from the comment section is the constant use of the terms “left” and “right”. Well, excuse me, but from what I have studied and observed, most Canadians appear to be CENTRIST and of those centrists, the majority appears to lean slightly to the left but wants fiscal conservatism.

    It is tiring to always just hear from the extreme ends of the political spectrum. How about giving the large voting public in between the extremes some credit for their common sense approach of being able to represent reasonable, sensible and able-to-compromise discourse without flinging names about, rudely shaking fingers in others’ faces, and shouting down and talking over others. Let’s try to be more Canadian. No one wants to devolve into an American reality show.

    • Exactly why the comments section in many media outlets has ceased, the attempted avoidance of the “American reality show”, as you put it. Many of today’s posts have nothing to do with the subject matter of an article, just hundreds of useless insults.

      Let us also not forget that when Harper was in power, in 2013 alone he spent $265 million for online posters. 1/4 billion worth of public manipulation. I’m sure Conservatives miss the 1000s of posters on the public dime. Most of whom would say anything for their .50 per post. To further insult many were not even from Canada, (outsourced brainwashing)

  5. More media worshipping at the Altar of Trudeau. Keep brushing that hair!

  6. I sincerely disagree that he did anything game changing. Trudeau realized ages ago that mentioning Stephen Harper is his greatest strength. Which is why he does it every chance he gets.

  7. Wow ! Evan, bending yourself into a pretzel justifying this government’s flip-flops, outright lies and total lack of conviction and morality using an NBA metaphor ? Really ? You do realize this is a CANADIAN magazine ? You are (presumably) talking to CANADIANS ? 61 % of voters in this incredible country did NOT vote for this government, and yet you attempt to justify the gaffes, errors, missteps and just plain arrogance of this regime with a metaphor of US millionaires chasing a bouncing ball around a court ? How patronizing ! Have more respect for your audience.

    • ‘using an NBA metaphor ? Really ? You do realize this is a CANADIAN magazine ?’

      Ever heard of the Toronto Raptors? Most have.

  8. It is well known Trudeau made over 200 promises during the election and at the time I thought there is no way he is going to be able to full fill them. The election promises were pure political pandering and vote buying. Promise everyone everything they want. Put a chicken in every pot. So now reality has set in and of course they can’t full fill the promises. For Evan to now say its to Trudeau’s credit to admit he lied is just goofy logic. The Liberals are accountable for every lie they made during the election.

    • The truly ridiculous issue around Trudeau’s performance thus far is that each time he tries to muscle the opposition (bill 6, election reform, fighter jets) and gets called on it, he checks himself and brings up his predecessor as though it is Harper’s fault he did it. The truth of the matter is that had the opposition not called him on his behaviours, he would have plotted ahead unchecked just like Harper. Who are he and Evan trying to kid? Trudeau is good at spinning his defeats. He hasn’t spun the veteran debacle yet. Nor has he spun the fighter jet hypocrisy. He hasn’t spun the First Nations broken promises but with 200 election promises, people are just happy he has kept one or two. The ones he breaks they manage to blame on Harper. How long with this last? It is going to get old when he doesn’t do a whole lot better by veterans like he promised and he doesn’t do a whole lot better by First Nations education and healthcare like he promised. He only flip flops because he gets called on his lies and parliamentary short cuts. How is that so great in a PM? He needs a continuous watch dog but he is better than Harper…..

      • So to be clear, because he has not kept his “200 election promises” by now, 8 months into his first mandate, he is a flip flopper?

        How many times has Trudeau brought up Harper and blamed him?

        And just as a reminder, the very first thing Trudeau had to do was deal with some of the mess Harper left behind, like Harper’s complete failure to even start on the assisted dying legislation.

        • This govt has yet to go a week without using the words “Stephen Harper” or “the previous government” in some fashion. So the answer to your question is “a lot”.

          This election reform committee thing had nothing whatsoever to do with Harper. If Trudeau wanted to apologize for it he could have just said “I’m sorry.” Instead he words it as “I was acting like the previous government.”

          That’s like saying “I’m sorry other people suck.”

          • So for specific examples of Trudeau blaming Harper for Trudeau’s missteps, you raise the one example of Trudeau blaming Harper for Trudeau’s missteps.

            Which is what I thought, so thanks.

          • Not going to give you specific examples of the sun rising either.

            I told you what you needed to look for but you’d rather play it coy.

          • Just so you know, it is obvious you have no examples, your desperate attempt to make it seem common notwithstanding.

          • Fine. May 25, the Liberal defense minister announces he’ll probably circumvent the “open and transparent” competition that was promised for Canada’s next fighter jet, and just buy the Super Hornet as an “interim”. He cites a “capability gap” as the reason, even though our current planes are undergoing a life-extending upgrade.

            Who does he blame? The Conservatives ofcourse. For not buying a plane before now. This being after the Liberal party dogged Harper for even thinking of buying the F-35. An aircraft that Canada spent millions of dollars developing, and which doesn’t have a clearcut competitor.

            If you want more examples then go look them up yourself. I don’t have time to re-read a thousand articles for your benefit.

        • Good gawd you can’t be that naive. He brought up the “previous govt of Canada” in his first international speech. He brings it up whenever he screws up like it is a “get out of jail free card” but whatever because the Cons did it too. It was always, well the Libs had ads am…. As for the “mess” Harper left behind. Several economists say the Libs were dishonest about the shape of the books that Harper left behind. There wasn’t a big deficit like Libs claimed. Further, it isn’t Harper’s fault that Justin didn’t write a physician assisted suicide legislation that is weak. The senate tried to help him get it right and he refused their amendments even though they came from people he appointed. He had plenty of help but he took a cowards way out. He owns this bill and now the courts will become involved, a trick he learned from Harper. It is a win/win for Justin. He doesn’t have to offend anyone. The courts will make the decisions for him just like the previous govt. It gets old though. The bloggers don’t accept the excuse that the Cons were worse because it is not a great endorsement of how great Justin is because he isn’t as bad as Harper.

          • It is irritating that one cannot edit one’s mistakes. I meant to say ad scam and that it is not the Con’s fault that Justin wrote a weak physician assisted suicide bill.

          • Your original post accused Trudeau of blaming Harper whenever Trudeau is called out for his conduct. I have asked for examples. You have simply restated your assertion and restated the one example that everyone is aware of.

            The contents of the bill is not Harper’s doing, but then I never suggested otherwise. What I did state quite clearly was that Harper’s failure to move on that bill meant that Trudeau had limited time to do so once he took office. Which meant he had to focus on that bill in addition to the other bill Harper failed to move on regarding the RCMP. These were both time sensitive matters and therefore of a high priority. So your complaint about Trudeau not putting all of his promises into place within the first 8 months of his mandate have to be considered in light of the things he had to focus on once he took office.

        • Exactly Gayle. Take our own jobs as an example: if a co-worker or previous worker left a monumental mess that would take months if not years to correct, I’m sure we’d be used to cursing his/her name on a regular basis.

          Conservatives will do anything to undermine not only Trudeau, but the entire country as well. It’s all about Conservatives, or whatever they call themselves this decade.

  9. Quote: “We were perhaps behaving in a way that was resembling more the previous government,” Trudeau told stunned reporters as he explained that he would cede to opposition requests to more fairly distribute seats on his electoral reform committee—a sudden and surprising climbdown.”

    So Trudeau recognized that his govt was going to get his head handed to him by shoving socalled `proportional representation’ down the public’s throats; he backtracks but is so crass he has to malign his predecessor in the process.

    Now, of course, he and the opposition parties who all stand to gain from the awkward and confusing proposals for election `reform’ will join together to shove the same thing down everyone’s throats without giving the public a say-so in a referendum.

    (and don’t repeat the Liberal talking point that such a vote is `unconstitutional’ – actual cons. law professors disagree with ventriloquist dummy Kingsley on this…)

    They – including the Bloc Quebecois – will get what they want and most of the press gallery – including another dummy, Solomon, will applaud their Dear Leader.

    The public? Bedamned.

    • Of course, the one opposition party that stands to gain by retaining the first past the post system does not want change.

      Basically you are saying political parties want a system that benefits their election. Which is, of course, completely true.

    • A referendum so Con. minions can carpet bomb every media outlet with misinformation? No one is stupid enough to allow that to happen. I for one am looking forward to seeing conservatives in perpetual third place. I won’t miss election fraud, out of control national debt and the general regressive attitude.

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