When a Prime Minister scrums (Or: Why Canadian democracy isn't dead)

When a Prime Minister scrums (Or: why democracy isn’t dead)

Paul Wells on the varied goals of scrumming reporters, and why Justin Trudeau’s much-discussed quantum clip made some people furious

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an announcement at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, April 15, 2016. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an announcement at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, April 15, 2016. (Nathan Denette/CP)

By mid-September 2008, the federal election was not going as Stephen Harper had hoped. The travelling press pack had cornered the Conservative prime minister in a Winnipeg vegetable warehouse. The day’s announcement was about a Conservative promise to cut diesel fuel taxes. The contrast with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion—the Liberals would make it more expensive to drive a truck, Harper would make it cheaper—was strong and clear. I had a tough question about Harper’s own climate plans. His answer was revealing.

Then the local City TV guy asked Harper which vegetable he would like to be, given the choice. The Conservative leader grinned, mumbled, looked down sheepishly, surveyed the vegetables behind him for an idea, and finally offered that he’d prefer to be a fruit, because then he could continue to be “sweet and colourful.”

This was not precisely like the moment the other day in Waterloo, Ont., when Justin Trudeau seized on a chance to display a basic understanding of quantum computing. Harper, at least, was taken by surprise. As JJ McCullough has since pointed out, Trudeau had announced to the scribes that he was hoping for a question about quantum computing, and the CP reporter quizzing him, Colin Perkel, had mentioned quantum only in passing, on his way to a Serious Question about Terrorism. Trudeau jumped on the question Perkel hadn’t really asked with evident glee, delivering a prepared but broadly accurate cereal-box summary of the basics of quantum computing. JJ sees this as evidence that democracy has died in Canada and the dogs of the press corps were spotted near the corpse; his depiction of a monolithically complacent media party is helped along by his cheerful willingness to ignore the Canadian Press report from Perkel himself, which described everything precisely as McCullough saw it.

But the issue isn’t only whether a question is set up. It is that, whenever a reporter doesn’t take a chance to force a politician into an embarrassing contradiction, that reporter is, beyond contradiction, making it a little easier for the politician to get through his day. Perkel’s real question, about the so-called Islamic State, is a matter of public record, as is the answer Trudeau eventually gave. But I can’t tell you what either the question or the answer was, because all I’ve heard out of Friday’s scrum was the wiffle ball on quantum computing. Trudeau’s entourage was not unhappy about this turn of events.

Whenever the confrontation between politicians and reporters takes a detour into colourful anecdote, there is always a part of the audience that perceives a missed opportunity to take that bastard down. At that Winnipeg vegetable warehouse in 2008, Harper was making an important contribution to his highest strategic imperative in that campaign, which was to focus attention on the dollar cost to consumers of Stéphane Dion’s environmental policies. Harper’s policy edifice was rickety at best (the day’s diesel-fuel promise would be the most expensive he made in that campaign, it made no sense at all, and after re-election he never lifted a finger to implement it). To anyone watching, and hoping he’d be taken down a peg, a goofy question about grocery-story produce must have been excruciating to watch. And of course you know Harper’s aw-shucks answer was on every newscast that night. So Harper won the day.

That was in 2008, when Harper had only been prime minister for 2½ years. By 2015 the tension was way higher. Joining Harper’s tour for several days just before Labour Day, I managed to put two questions to him in scrums, once in Vancouver and once in Whitehorse. The first time, I parroted the Liberal and NDP lines on deficits to him and invited him to tear their arguments apart like a Doberman, which he promptly did. On my second turn at the microphone, I began by reminding Harper that this was my fifth time covering him in a national election campaign. He replied with some memories of his own, and there were a few seconds of banter back and forth. It was, inevitably, a humanizing moment for a PM who had not often lately seemed very human.

Such events are now routinely carried live on various Internet platforms. Both times I walked away from the microphone to find Twitter exploding with variations on, “My God, there’s Wells chatting with his buddy WHEN WILL THE MEDIA STOP PROPPING THIS GUY UP.”

Perhaps, on such occasions, everyone could take a few minutes to breathe through the nose. Reporters at scrums are chasing a few different objectives, almost never in co-ordinated fashion.

Some are hoping to catch a party leader in a contradiction or to force him to admit some situation is far worse than he has ever admitted before. These are the questions that begin with “Aren’t you…” or “Isn’t it…” Or “Why don’t…”

Some have been working on an obscure story, ignored by colleagues, and it is now time to get the leader’s comment. Their questions will seem annoying but they will probably have many colleagues following them soon enough.

Some reporters are simply desperate for the leader to say something fresh on a subject that hasn’t been done to death. Others have discovered that this week the only way to get any play for their stories is to pile onto a subject that has been done to death, even at the risk of doing it some more.

Some are local reporters for whom nothing a leader says can be as interesting as the mere fact of his presence in their community. They are likely to ask questions about vegetables or superheroes. (It is important not to generalize. Other local reporters will sometimes send a line drive right into the leader’s solar plexus, on shipping routes or grain prices or police budgets.)

But on any given day, a scrum will probably not reduce a political leader to a quivering, weeping ruin of exposed incompetence, and to the extent that it doesn’t deliver that result, it will frustrate viewers who were hoping for it.

On the subject at hand, I do not believe anyone watching Trudeau’s scrum could reasonably conclude he is a leading thinker in the field of quantum physics. I do not believe our coverage would encourage that belief. (Full disclosure: My wife, Lisa Samson of StrategyCorp, counts the Institute for Quantum Computing among her clients. She had nothing to do with our coverage of Trudeau’s visit.) He seemed to me like a guy who’d been briefed on the basics of the field, and had taken care to memorize the briefing, perhaps especially because it offered the chance to rebut the widespread notion that Justin Trudeau is a fool.

Good for him that he takes a briefing. In 2005, speaking at the opening of the then-new Perimeter Institute building, Paul Martin waxed rhapsodic about the importance of scientific discovery while joking that he had no idea what Perimeter’s researchers were talking about. I always wished he had taken 20 minutes to get an idea. Trudeau studied for a few years after 2002 at Montreal’s École polytechnique, where quantum mechanics is today the subject of an undergraduate course, though he notes in his memoir that he dropped out after a couple of years, calling engineering “an intellectual indulgence.” Perhaps some of it took, despite everything.

I suspect Harry Truman didn’t know much about nuclear fission, or George W. Bush about the grammatical nuances of Pashto, when they made crucial decisions on subjects with important technical dimensions. I do not even buy the notion that such decisions are improved by having a full-time “science adviser.” I do know that, every time we take a light-hearted angle on any politician’s meeting with the press, some in our audience will mourn our culpable refusal to end that politician’s career right then and there.


When a Prime Minister scrums (Or: why democracy isn’t dead)

  1. Clever way of denying Maclean’s coverage was, perhaps, lacking in some skepticism. Of course Trudeau isn’t a leading figure in quantum physics. No one is accusing Maclean’s or other media of implying such.

    But your magazine did write an article about his “stunning” knowledge that left scientists and reporters “flabbergasted” while also ignoring the context that it came in, with Trudeau’s literal question begging being indulged. And then you got all indignant on Twitter when people didn’t like that.

    • One should ask Paul what the reaction would have been if HARPER had been the one to answer a question about quantum computing.

      I’m sure it wouldn’t have made it to vanity Fair, or the CBC or Toronto star in a gushing batch of stories. Why?

      Simple…..because if Harper knew how quantum computing works, no one would be surprised as the former PM was known to have a formidable intellect.

      If Justin Trudeau shows any flash of ANY type of complex thinking…….it must be news. It would certainly be surprising.

      That is why the story had legs.

      If I was a Liberal, I would be worried about this.

      • I would have been surprised if he was able to answer the question.

        He was, after all, a dull fruit who showed no aptitude for science or anything beyond political maneuvering. He greatest praise was that he was a “political genius” for having defeated Micheal Ignatieff.

        • J. Edwards,

          The fact you know nothing about Harper, is probably a good reason why you voted Liberal.

          Harper was widely recognized for his superior intellect; albeit, the reputation for ruthlessness didn’t help enforce that view.

          Frankly, if you think Trudeau is the least bit intelligent, it is no doubt due to the fact you are comparing him to yourself. Here is the view of someone who has a history of NOT LIKING HARPER…..but the honesty to admit the brains of the mann.


          • Oooh, an opinion piece in a newspaper. A certain proof of nothing.

            Now, has Harper shown an aptitude for science? No.

            Has Harper ever been known for anything beyond the political? No.

            So other than your vague claims or a newspaper column when has Harper demonstrated this great all round genius? Outside of politics, as I stated, what is Harpers genius?

          • J. Edwards,

            I am not surprised you cannot recognize what you yourself are clearly lacking.

            As the saying, goes….”it takes one, to know one”

            You are not “one”

  2. That’s a fair response to the people criticizing the reporter.

    But to me the lamentable thing is Trudeau supporters gleefully making the video viral.

    As if the best thing in the world for democracy was a PM making easy points by evading a tough question.

    • A PM is not only supposed to be a leader of a country, he also must sell our country to the world, and if it takes Quantum Phys. to get attention to our PM, well that’s a good sign that he or she may be in demand to the rest of the world, and if anything, other leaders in the world like, especially if the polling is low in their favor, is a popular world leader to come to visit their country. Just look what happened when Obama came to Canada for his first visit after being elected a couple of months, Harper sucked it up and made it look like him and Obama were buds, but we know what happened to that relationship. This guy attracts attention throughout the world, Canada has never ever seen this kind of popularity since his dad, and his dad can’t hold a candle to this kind of popularity. Being popular gets you access to a world where the average world leader would never.

      • Carpet Bomber…….

        Read what you just wrote.

        In effect, you are saying it is better to be a Kardashian, than an Einstein.

        Well…..live it up. We have a Kardashian as the PM.

        If in doubt, compare the two….who takes more selfies?

        • I don’t think that that is what Bomber is saying at all and is fact a straw man.

          What he is saying is that many an opportunity to sell Canada abroad went begging in the past decade because of the surly and unpleasant nature of our previous PM. People abroad now think more positively of Canada, which means that they will listen to what we have to say. If they listen then they could help us do things that benefit us.
          Einstein knew the importance of communicating with others, that’s why he was as successful and as famous as he was. He was also never shy of using that fame to bed many women and in furthering his own agendas.
          I would never go as far as to say that Trudeau is like Einstein, but then neither would I go as far as you did and say he is a Kardashian either.
          He is however a lift for Canada in the world, and will give Canada opportunities that the previous PM could never have made available.

          PS I never voted for either party as I view them as pretty much the same in reality.

          • Harebell wrote:
            ” to sell Canada abroad went begging in the past decade because of the surly and unpleasant nature of our previous PM.”

            What you call surly and unpleasant, I call competent, ethical, and realistic.

            Harper didn’t cater to the UN, or beg the approval of the international community. Now that another Liberal is PM, you can be sure the pandering and moral equivalence will be showing itself even more. In fact, Trudeau has already promised the UN billions to combat the non-existent problem of climate change.

            And I’m sure, it won’t be long before the LIberals cave in and start once again accusing Israel of genocide or apartheid against the terrorists..er, I mean the Palestinians.

  3. The CP reporter claims that Trudeau not only answered the ISIS question he posed as part of the quantum computing question, but 2 others.

    Yet the piece he filed included none of that. No clue what his questions were or what the presumably deep, well thought out answers were. The only thing he wrote about was Trudeau’s pre-planned break-the-internet quantum computing answer.

    If he wasn’t a plant, explain that. Why throw away the answers to the “real” questions he was asking and write only about the fluffy one that Trudeau had pre-memorized?

    • iPolitics has 35 pages of stories by Colin Perkel going back to the launch of iPolitics. The reporter’s career began well before that. Since you are arguing that he “is a plant,” I assume you’re arguing that the Trudeau camp set him up as a CP reporter years before Trudeau himself first ran for Parliament, the better to provide a fig leaf of deniability on a news brite a decade down the line?

      My God. These guys *are* good.

      • not following the logic of ‘he’s got 35 pages under his belt’ and so he couldn’t possibly be a plant now. Yes, he could; he wouldn’t have been the first reporter to do that sort of thing – we just don’t know the truth or whether he was a tad too compliant with the Gov’t in this situation or just a perhaps a tad too naive. But the incident has undermined the media’s credibility.

      • I’m asking for an explanation of why the *only* content in his piece was the question that was asked and answered supposedly as a joke, with the serious questions and answers discarded. I’m willing to entertain a reasonable explanation if you’ve got one. So far no one has come up with one.

        • Maybe because the reporter decided to follow on the “story” with the most interest? Also, the subsequent answer on IS was generic in content and presented nothing new, therefore, was not news. This may be not be the kind of news that changes the world, but this is what people responded to and reporters looking to sell (one of their primary objectives) ran away with it.

      • I wouldn’t say the reporter was a plant….it was pretty clear this was Justin Trudeau (and his team) who set this up.

        The failing of the media, is that there is no doubt some reporters knew it was a set-up designed to make someone widely known to be intellectually weak, look stronger.

        Basically, the complaint is that the pretty-boy is not held to the same standards simply because of who he is, and what party he belongs to. It tends to reinforce the image of a biased media. (it is biased)

        If a Conservative MP had pulled this stunt, he would have been in the news for weeks until he was forced out of caucus.

    • Can’t remember where nor by whom it was said … but the question supposedly came from “the foreign press”, said a commentator, as if rejecting the notion that the question was possibly planted. IMO, planted or not, Trudeau’s answer was gushed over by a mostly rapturous press, confirming my long-held opinion that the Canadian press, generally speaking, is neither objective nor disinterested.

      Having said that … as a supporter of the Conservative Party, I believe the portrayal of Justin Trudeau as some sort of airhead completely backfired … and continues to do so. I don’t know about his IQ but his EQ is certainly being used to his advantage. IMO, he is a very quick study, learning his lines extremely well. His performances are calculated & usually well scripted, worthy of a Gemini.

  4. Obviously a politician was going to take the time to be briefed beforehand on quantum computers for a visit to a place that does….quantum computing. Pretty easy to anticipate the question.

    But I don’t get the excitement or outrage on either side about this. It’s a fun clip that media picked up. That’s politics. Trying to make it some kind of scandal suggests a sense of humour is sorely lacking in some critics.

    • Obviously, that is not obvious at all. Most politicians get briefed on the message of the day and what the takeaway from the event is, things like quantum computing, the genetics of a new strain of wheat etc. are of little concern to politicians.

  5. I think when Trudeau said engineering was an “intellectual indulgence” he meant that him taking it was self-indulgent, since he wasn’t going to follow through and become a professional engineer.


      I think he means that it was simply too hard to be worth his effort.

      Math is tough….and not just for the NDP.

    • It takes a special breed to become an engineer, and then to work as an engineer. You have to be a particular kind of person.
      As long as I’m in my right mind, (I swore as I left my last oil patch job as a secretary), I will never work for engineers again. It’s like beating your head against the wall to have an ordinary conversation. They’re fantastic logistical problem solvers, and engineering is boot camp for business. It’s for people who only see the world in terms of black and white. How many engineers go into the upper levels of leadership? Lee Iacocca is the only one I can think of offhand, and he was a salesman with a genius for sales.

  6. Kudos, Paul, good read. Do We need a PM who fully understands quantum physics? No! Do we need a PM who can at least comprehend detailed briefings prepared by knowledgeable people? It certainly helps!

  7. If studying engineering was an intellectual indulgence, then Mr. Trudeau would most certainly have learned a good amount. It is like someone indulging in chocolate – you can’t indulge yourself unless you eat it.

  8. What about the “incestuous” relationship between the CBC (Peter Mansbridge) and the PMO. Mansbridge gets privileged access because of a personal relationship, and the CBC gets more money? And what about the non-disclosure of the personal relationship?

    Should Peter Mansbridge be doing these pieces or at least recusing himself in favour of another CBC reporter? Don’t they have a deep bench?

    • Harper is gone. That incestuous relationship has ended.

      Or maybe… Mansbridge gets the PM on his show, regardless of party, because he’s a respected senior journalist with a large audience?

    • If you were smart enough to read body language, you could see that Trudeau wasn’t over the moon about doing that interview. He’s not buddies with Mansbridge, not after the way Mansbridge treated him in the pre-election interview compared with the way he did the bruh thing with Mulcair and Harper. He treated Trudeau like an errant teenager.

      FF to the “first day”, and Trudeau is being polite, because that’s how he was brought up, but I’d say that he didn’t want CBC hanging around on a very special day to him and his kids. When they were in the car it was kinda funny how Trudeau sat there and let Peter struggle with the doorknob, while he waited for someone to open it from the outside — because he’s been in that position before. For years. Then he finally let loose on the bus when Mansbridge made some dumb comment about how can you do this when you’re PM? and Trudeau responded with something about ‘maybe youre too accustomed to caravans of SUVs’, and got a laugh out of it – but I did not see him as overly friendly to Mansbridge at all. He’s a guy who grew up in privilege, who knows how to handle it, and also who knows exactly who the soft-soapers and ear-biters are and how to identify them. He would sooner talk to someone on the street than Mansbridge. Notice that most of the major Trudeau / Liberal interviews were given to CTV, not CBC.

  9. Hey Paul Wells, if Trudeau is spending all his time memorizing “Because it’s 2016” and “Things can be both particle and wave at the same times, and the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computers” (yes he said both “times” and “computers” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/news-video/video-trudeau-nerds-out-over-quantum-theory/article29647412/ ) then who’s running the country? That’s the real question you and your colleagues should be asking, rather than regurgitating Trudeau’s regurgitations.

  10. I appreciate this explanation Paul. What I don’t understand is the lack of coverage regarding the sit ins of First Nations people at federal buildings related to the suicide crisis on several reserves. This “quantum physics” story is such a puff piece. Of course the PM was briefed. Of course he regurgitated what he learned. Of course the professors were thrilled that he was a good student and the media was thrilled that he charmed them all into allowing himself to show how well he learned his lessons but the Liberals had the opportunity to elect a rocket scientist to lead them and they didn’t. Marc Garneau could have gone to the institute to announce the funding. He didn’t. If JT is really interested in showing how Canada is serious about science, send our minister who happens to be an astronaut. That wouldn’t have gotten Canada Vanity Fair press though because Garneau is pretty enough to be a model.

    • Isn’t Garneau the transport minister? So he has no business being there, because despite his qualifications, this is not his dossier. Maybe you mean that they could have sent the science minister. But I doubt it would have pulled the media as much as if the PM himself went to highlight it.
      I agree with the lack of coverage on other more important issue, however. But at the of the day, reporters need to sell and they need clicks, and some news, it would seem, they have decided doesn’t sell.

      • But by that logic, the PM should be sidelining all of his ministers when it comes to making announcements.

        Trudeau did promise government by cabinet.

        • Yes, he certainly sent his minister to Europe to negotiate our trade deal.

      • Why isn’t the rocket science in a portfolio that plays to his greatest strength? In Canada we appear to be falling behind in Research & Development. Why wouldn’t we put a scientist in that portfolio. No. We put him in transportation? Do they really believe they are going to get trains and jets to be propelled using wind power and Garneau is going to figure out how.

  11. It as an entertaining to watch Conservative supporters heads explode and bet of all. the Sun/Rebel/ Postmedia crowd outrage at what they perceive as media bias..
    Too funny

    • Kelper…

      “outrage at what they perceive as media bias”

      Which just shows any thinking person…..some folks really are blind to reality.


      Oi vey.

  12. Well
    One thing that this little episode does is illustrate that Trudeau listens when experts are explaining complex matters to him. Nobody could ever accuse the previous regime of that level of engagement or of being open to new ideas. They preferred to shut down or muzzle those that scared them with their advanced lurnin’ and stuff.

    • Harebell….

      If I had a bunch of activists scientists creating fraudulent data to garner support for their activist agenda’s…..I’d want to muzzle them too; at least until what they were reporting was verified.

      Canada has very few real scientists any more. We have a group of lab-coats pushing an agenda, and demanding more funding to save the world.

      In fact, every REAL scientist, has real doubts about the veracity of UN claims about climate change, but they have for the most part, been silenced, or barred/excluded from publishing their work.

      (Man made) climate change, is a scam. More and more of Canadians are starting to see it.

      • Good to see you post this anti-science comment that both lies about scientific opinion and the growing public acceptance of the science of global warming.

        Your anti-science stance contrasts nicely with Trudeau’s answer about quantum computing which apparently has so upset the right wing.

        Again, thank you for your post. No one could have exposed the hypocrisy of those suffering from early onset Trudeau Derangement Syndrome than you just did.

        • Upon being elected Trudeau made a point of telling each of his caucus that his first priority was to the First Nations people. Yet when there was a sit in at federal buildings by First Nations demanding his presence in the north where a state of emergency had been called due to suicides, where was he? Showing off his abilities as a public speaker to a bunch of professors that are so grateful for the cash they were happy to massage his ego. Well good for him. I am sure those suicidal kids really appreciated his show of brilliance. It is really great that he cared enough to show up at the airport and welcome our refugees but he couldn’t get on a plane to walk the talk when it came to our First Nations kids.