Justin Trudeau speaks: Risk and opportunity

The PM riles the Baltics. But he also gets to make the rest of his case.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Maclean's Magazine political writer Paul Wells at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa December 16, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Paul Wells at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa December 16, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

I swear we didn’t plan to do another Maclean’s political television show after that debate in August. That was exhausting. But it also taught Maclean’s to work more closely with several other tentacles of the Rogers corporate kraken — City, Omni, the radio stations and more — in pursuit of ambitious journalism. Once we’d built that capability, it was probably inevitable we’d use it again.

It just happened so quickly this time, is all. In interviews less than two weeks ago for an article on the Trudeau government’s operating style, I learned the new Prime Minister was interested in town-hall-style events in addition to his more traditional year-end interviews. We put together a proposal. His office agreed promptly. Canadians saw the result today.

Organizing the event with the Trudeau PMO was like pushing through a series of open doors. Town hall? Yes, came the prompt answer. Questions off the top from Chatelaine and L’actualité? You bet. Could we invite other news organizations? Sure thing. Scrum afterward? No, sorry, no scrum. But could we send a camera to wherever he’d be on Monday and shoot promotional video? Absolutely.

The 60-second version of that promotional video went viral on Monday night, retweeted thousands of times, as people in Pakistan and Japan, Turkey and Mexico (including, as far as I could tell, nearly the entire editorial staff of the Guardian) discovered this young Prime Minister quoting Cyrano de Bergerac and, uh, discussing his first pet. A lot of the commentary was amazed. Some was dismissive. The novelty effect won’t last forever, but it was fascinating to watch.

It was also in the promo video that Trudeau started to get into trouble in some circles, with his remark that picking a favourite Baltic country “isn’t a thing.” Boy, he must not have gone to university where I did. We used to stay up late into the night at Western, debating the merits of Lithuania vs. Latvia. I kid. But of course some viewers were sure he was asserting that the Baltic states themselves are not a thing, and the (surprisingly numerous) defenders of Baltic honour were quick to make themselves heard.

More trouble, of a sort, will follow his long answer at the actual event to a question about the exclusionary rhetoric of Donald Trump, the alarmingly lifelike windup toy that is running for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination. Trudeau’s answer mentioned the so-called Charter of Quebec Values the Parti Québécois ran on in 2014, and ended up calling Trump’s rhetoric ignorant. This will buy him trouble, in Quebec and perhaps from Trump, that he didn’t particularly need.

Now here’s the thing. The Baltic uprising and the (altogether more predictable) uproar from the PQ are a direct result of Trudeau talking about things he didn’t need to talk about. We just got done, as a country, with a prime minister who saw such uproars as a good reason not to talk. In his excellent book Harper’s Team, Tom Flanagan describes a few times when, as Opposition leader in 2002 and 2003, Harper made lame jokes that got him into days of hot water. He eventually decided he could no longer make jokes in public. He developed a reputation for humourlessness that baffled anyone who knew him well. Later he decided it was too dangerous for any Conservative candidate to speak without extensive briefing and vetting. Then, in power, any Canadian diplomat. Then any public servant.

By 2015, it had become kind of pathetic. Harper went longer without meeting the premiers, as a group, than any prime minister in 90 years. He wouldn’t meet Ontario’s premier until he had strong guarantees that nothing would be discussed and he’d have a hockey game to escape to. He used to have journalists over to 24 Sussex, always in one big group, always with their families, once in spring, once before Christmas. In his last year and a half in office he stopped doing that. Don’t cry for my lot, but in his last campaign, he ensured no human being would get into his campaign events without a prior invitation. Nobody heard him speak who was not already a committed Conservative supporter. He had long since stopped trying to persuade anyone.

That, in large part, is what brought Harper down, isn’t it? He was so careful not to hear a discouraging word or make an untoward remark that he had nothing to say and nothing he thought he needed to hear. Conservatives are left today with the disorienting sensation of having little to show for a decade in power because few Canadians have heard why any of it happened. Now, I’ve written two books about Harper that are often broadly complimentary to him, and I think they hold up well. But it always seemed to me that there was a substantial opportunity cost to all this battening down of hatches. We get a glimpse of it when we see the Conservatives’ interim leader, Rona Ambrose, and long-stymied Conservative MPs like Scott Reid making a strong contribution in the House of Commons. Multiply that by everybody who was kept from making the case, in anything longer than a few dozen inane words at a time, for Conservative ideas over a decade.

Meanwhile Justin Trudeau made the case for his ideas today in front of a live audience and a nation watching on TV and the Internet. Maybe one day his big mouth will get him into the kind of trouble he can’t get out of. In the meantime Canadians will have a decent idea what he’s on about. He seems comfortable with that allocation of risk and opportunity.




Justin Trudeau speaks: Risk and opportunity

  1. Wells has his head buried so deep up Trudeau’s ass he can see through Justy’s bellybutton.

    • Most Canadians (except the ones that would vote for Harper if he was a child molester) like an open, caring, civil PM. One that is willing to share his thoughts and ideas and doesn’t care if he loses a few votes because he sincerely wants to make Canada a better country.

      • Ifonly he could speak more than three words without mumbling “err” or “umm”.

    • Repeat LESPAUL’s comment, except switch the placement of Mr Wells’s name, and the prime minister’s name. Then edit out the foul metaphors, and replace with Mr Wells’s metaphor of open doors.

      • My belated apologies, for the record, I had no idea what Lespaul meant by his metaphor. I’m sorry if I might have caused the misunderstanding that the metaphor of open doors had any subversive meaning.

        • *I’m sorry that (not if) it would have led to the inference that the metaphor of open doors, and hence, the misunderstanding that I was accusing the author of being subversive.

  2. I thought this article was going to be about Trudeau but half of it was about Harper. Paul is having a little trouble letting go of his ideological playmate.

    • Lespaul, meet Man-o-Man. I’m gonna go back to work now.

  3. Eventually, the Magazine formerly known as Macleans will once again turn to actual news stories and cease being the “justin Trudeau” fan club magazine.

    As for the Baltic States…..if they don’t contain a large number of Syrian refugees, Muslim’s, or First nations people who vote Liberal…….it should be no wonder Trudeau remains clueless. there are no photo-ops to be had here.

    • you can see an imprint of harper’s belt buckle on Paul’s forehead, but your head is so far up harper’s hindquarters, you cant see..

      • Actually, it’s so far up Harper’s butt that the light that he sees is actually from Harper’s mouth…

  4. “Broadly complimentary” is rather modest. But I admire Paul for moving on from his sympathetic coverage of Harper over 10 years.
    I think he just admires all politicians and will try to give them all what he sees as fair coverage.
    He missed that point at which this position becomes irresponsible to the national good.
    But many of the Ottawa media haven’t been able to leave idolatry, some respect and fear of Harper and his agents behind.
    The self imposed blindness during the worst of the Harper regime authoritarian ways on the part of Ottawa media elites was shown when independent thinkers such as Stephen Marche published the truth about the Harper years in foreign publications before the election. Ottawa couldn’t handle it.
    But the truth of what he said was self evident to just about everybody else.
    I’m sure Wells and the others are shocked at how suddenly the so called Harper legacy is disappearing. For Wells it’s now “the longer I’m NOT Prime Minister”. In the end it’s going to amount to nothing of importance. The worst Prime Minister in Canadian history.
    Order of Canada for the Stop Harper girl and Michael Harris!

  5. //Conservatives are left today with the disorienting sensation of having little to show for a decade in power because few Canadians have heard why any of it happened. Now, I’ve written two books about Harper that are often broadly complimentary to him, and I think they hold up well. //

    The Trudeau government is going to be a train wreck. Harper’s record and achievements in power will be clear to most everyone in a few years when Canada and Canadians are in economic ruin because of the incompetence and general cluelessness of the best and brightest of the Laurentian establishment.

    Too bad Harper’s flaws cost him one more term.

    • Agreed. I do think Pension Income Splitting and a lower GST have been great for every Canadian in Canada. Obviosly you have to have some income to spend. The conservative government was all about giving back to Canadians though it appears no one knew this.

  6. Mr. Harper’s self-imposed isolation was never a problem for me. He never had much to say
    that was of interest in my little corner of the universe. My opposition to him was based on a
    broad range of his policies … which I suspect Mr.Wells and the Postie and ex-Postie punditi
    never had a problem with. He was rarely marked down on technical merit but artistic merit
    (style points) was his failing in their eyes.

    • I read plenty of articles taking Harper to task for actual policies (Wells’ articles among them). Having said that, I agree with the thesis that what took Harper down was the style of his government rather than the substance. I use the word “style” rather loosely to include things like making a mockery of QP, omnibus budgets, practically or literally calling those who disagree with one policy or another traitors or pedophiles, a general meanness that was both uncalled for and counterproductive. That’s my opinion, FWIW.

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