Opinion

Trudeau's town halls offer a master class in changing the narrative: Robyn Urback

If Trudeau takes a beating, which he has, all the better — even his critics will have to reluctantly commend him for taking his medicine. Beautiful work, PMO.

What better for a little reputation resuscitation than a talking-to-Canadians tour?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question from protesters during a town hall meeting in Hamilton on Jan. 10. If Trudeau takes a beating in his town halls, which he has, all the better — even his critics will have to reluctantly commend him for taking his medicine. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to kick off 2018 with a series of town hall discussions with everyday Canadians is a master class in manipulating the narrative. Honestly, well done.

Politicians always earn extra cred by submitting themselves to the lion's den, and the PMO's decision to not screen the questions — as evidenced by the pointed questions about Trudeau's ethical lapses, the government's settlement with Omar Khadr and the deportation of Abdoul Abdi — only bolsters the perception that the prime minister is making himself available and accountable to concerned Canadians.

His answers generally invalidate that perception, what with few of them being of any real substance, but the impression the whole exercise leaves is one of a leader willing to face his critics. And impression is pretty much all that matters here.

A wobbly end to 2017

The last we saw of Trudeau in 2017, he was stumbling through a presser on former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson's report into his Aga Khan vacation, which Dawson found was in violation of four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act. Trudeau was embarrassingly unprepared for questions that should have been wholly anticipated, and he walked away from the podium wounded.

The timing was especially bad, considering a few of his other end-of-year lowlights: a miscalculated trade gambit to China, enduring ethical questions about his finance minister's divestment of personal assets and a clash between one of his ministers and a group of thalidomide survivors.

So what better for a little reputation resuscitation than a talking-to-Canadians tour? Especially with prepared remarks, rolled sleeves, a little humour about being a powerful man in government accepting gifts (har har) and so forth?

An open forum town hall is particularly handy in that it generates all sorts of headlines about all sorts of different topics, diluting the focus from any single issue. And if Trudeau takes a beating, which he has, all the better — even his critics will have to reluctantly commend him for taking his medicine. Beautiful work, PMO.

Some readers will misinterpret this analysis as an ovation, of sorts, for the prime minister's latest efforts at accountability. But familiar readers surely recognize I am far too cynical for that. Rather, my intention here is to point out that after a wobbly end to 2017, it appears the Trudeau machine is back on track, ready to turn heckles into standing ovations and bad press into photo ops.

Whatever one might say about his governing abilities, Trudeau is a very skilled politician. Canadians are being reminded of that again.

The Prime Minister held his second town hall of the year in Hamilton, Ontario 3:28

The opposition, meanwhile, is still working out the kinks — to put it generously.

Andrew Scheer's team is trying to figure out who he's supposed to be (this week, he's the guy who grew up just like everyone else), though he has alienated some supporters by kicking Sen. Lynn Beyak out of the Conservative caucus over letters about residential schools she posted on her Senate website.

Scheer, who campaigned for the Conservative leadership on a vague promise to defund universities that don't uphold free speech, is now being accused of censorship by Beyak and her supporters. It's a bad look, especially with the he-said-she-said going on between the sides, which dispute each other's versions of the instructions that were conveyed.

Jagmeet Singh's team is arguably faring worse, having seemed to lose the early momentum that Scheer's team never really enjoyed.

The NDP leader had a few early blunders — bizarre answers to questions about the Air India bombing, an embarrassing about-face on his position on language requirements for judges — while slowly revealing policy positions on Twitter, apparently by way of beat poetry.

His team seems enduringly unaware of the expectations of the leader of a major political party, initially refusing a media appearance without seeing questions in advance, then more recently, by weirdly playing coy when asked about photos of an apparent engagement ceremony. But if this guy wants to be prime minister, there is no more playing coy about these things.

This greenness around both party leaders will fade, surely, but compared to Operation Trudeau — which can end 2017 muddied with scandal, only to emerge with A+ shareable content of the prime minister disarming a heckler — it seems they have a long way to go. Meanwhile, Trudeau will keep embracing those blows, and in the long run probably be better off for it.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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