Senior staffers in Ottawa have traditionally stayed out of the headlines and spotlights, and when they are in the public eye it’s often been in moments of scandal.
“My primary job is serving the prime minister and the cabinet and the government,” Katie Telford said, speaking to Maclean’s Paul Wells at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Wednesday evening.
But Team Trudeau—most of whose members have been with the prime minister since at least his party leadership bid in 2013—has been something of an exception. Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff and one of the most powerful women in Canadian politics, had one of the keynote spots at the 2016 Liberal convention, while at the most recent edition in Halifax this past weekend, his principal secretary Gerald Butts shared the stage with Democrat strategist David Axelrod.
Their public appearances are a conscious choice, Telford told Wells. “I would like to earn from Canadians, to the degree that we can, greater respect for the political system,” she said, a system which includes jobs like hers. “The way that we can best do that is if we actually open the doors a bit and show people what it is that we do.”
Much has been made of the decision-making power of Trudeau’s top staffers. “The prime minister’s office very much plays a supporting and coordinating role,” was Telford’s preferred way of framing it. Not everything can happen at once, she noted, so prioritization based on cabinet feedback “is what we spend a lot of our time doing.”
The polls have not been particularly kind to the Liberals in recent months. The prime minister’s much-mocked India trip has hurt his image. “The pictures [and] the stories that came out of the trip did not reflect the experience,” Telford insisted. “But it is our job to figure out how to correct for that.” She cited the prime minister’s meeting with women CEOs as a particular highlight, and noted the investment announcements made.
Trudeau is in front of the press and public more than at least his immediate predecessor, Telford contended. “That means there’s going to be days when we go to bed thinking, Maybe tomorrow will be better,” she joked.
Telford was in Washington, D.C. earlier in the day, as negotiations over a revised NAFTA intensified. The U.S.-Canada relationship is the country’s most important, Telford said. “I think there is an expectation that we put real time and effort into this,” she noted, pointing to the outreach campaign involving ministers and MPs—even opposition ones—to make friends across the border.
Either outcome in the in-limbo Trans Mountain pipeline dispute is also likely to cost the party support. The Liberals have a lot of MPs in British Columbia, fewer in Alberta, Wells observed. “I know it’s tempting to want to do the seat math,” Telford responded, but she focused on the balance ministers keep emphasizing they’re trying to strike between economy and environment.
Still, the 2019 election is less than two years away. Telford noted that the mechanics of campaigning—signing up volunteers, fundraising, connecting with voters—have not stopped since the last one.
In Halifax, the prime minister revived the “sunny ways” line of his 2015 victory speech, even as he slammed the Conservatives for what he said was a continued adherence to the policies of the Stephen Harper government.
But there’s a difference between running to become the government and running as the party in government, Wells noted on Wednesday evening. Trudeau and his team will have to run on, or at least defend, their record this time around. The Liberals are “continuously learning and staying connected to a positive vision for government,” Telford insisted.
Continuing to knock on doors is important, Telford had said earlier. “Those stories come back to Ottawa, and keep it real,” she said, noting that the prime minister’s office (PMO) also reads its mail to find out what people think. One thing MPs have been hearing on people’s front porches is the popularity of the Canada Child Benefit, the Liberals’ version of a tax break for parents, although she acknowledged that hasn’t been as clear a message at the national level.
Telford’s occasional public appearances are also a means of advancing her interest in changing the gender imbalance in politics and government. “I’m a believer in the ‘see her to be her’ mantra,” she explained. Bringing “the backrooms a little more into the front rooms” will help to “draw more people in,” she said.
Diversity and inclusion is the subject of one of the PMO’s regular stock-taking meeting series. Telford pointed to progress she saw between two sets of gatherings a year apart, that involved the economic and the security and defence sections of the governments. “When the prime minister calls a meeting, a lot can happen from that,” she said.
Pushback is not unexpected, she said. “There’s been ups and downs for the word ‘feminist’ over the last number of decades,” she noted, but suggested she’d seen growing comfort, particularly among young women and men, since Trudeau’s self-identified as such.
Telford said the resistance “tends to be to quiet our voices,” but withdrawing from the public eye is not the answer. She noted that in the wake of numerous #MeToo revelations in Ottawa, it was also important to emphasize the importance and privilege of working in politics. “I didn’t want all the negativity surrounding around what was coming out to push anyone away,” particularly those who aren’t currently reflected, she said.
Telford will probably be heading back to Washington tomorrow morning. “Events unfold in ways that I can’t plan for,” she noted at the beginning of her conversation with Wells. Such is the life of a chief of staff, or at least this one.