Analysis

How contending with Trump might help Trudeau move past the India debacle

The prime minister who went to India and made some questionable wardrobe decisions is the same prime minister whose government has been commended for its handling (so far) of Donald Trump. That suggests a source of political redemption - or greater peril - for a suddenly vulnerable Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister contends with tariff threats after an embarrassing trip abroad

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in New Delhi, India on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The prime minister who went to India and made some questionable wardrobe decisions is the same Justin Trudeau whose government has been getting good reviews (so far) for its handling of Donald Trump.

And that suggests a potential source of political redemption — or possibly even greater peril — for a suddenly vulnerable PM whose country is bracing for the fallout from an unpredictable president's latest fit of pique.

To understand why Trudeau's eight days in India may represent his government's lowest point to date, it might be useful to look back at a memo drafted by the prime minister's advisers earlier this year to explain why his communications and tour staff would soon be reporting to a single manager.

"This decision reflects the obvious reality that our communications and visual identity as a government are one and the same," Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, Trudeau's chief of staff and principal secretary, wrote to staff in January. "To put it a different way, as [director of research and advertising] Dan Arnold might say, 'pics or it didn't happen.' "

In the case of India, the "pics" turned out to be of Sophie Gregoire posing with a man convicted of the attempted murder of a former Indian cabinet minister, and of the prime minister himself ostentatiously outfitted in traditional attire.

Journalists and opposition politicians have been asking hard questions about Jaspal Atwal's appearance beside the PM's wife at an event in Mumbai, and a Trudeau government official's subsequent suggestion that Indian officials were somehow complicit in Atwal's invitation.

But this is mostly about the clothes, isn't it?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, daughter Ella-Grace and son Xavier visit Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad on February 19, 2018. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Trudeau's image takes a hit

According to Abacus Data, the percentage of Canadians who believe Trudeau is doing a "poor" job of representing Canada internationally has jumped 16 points since last fall. That surely has something to do with the fact that the "visual identity" of Trudeau recently became tarnished by claims that he looked silly and self-indulgent while representing Canada in India.

For as long as Trudeau has been around politics, he has been asked to demonstrate that he is a sufficiently serious person for high office. And even if he seemed to answer that question in 2015, Conservatives have never really let it go.

Trudeau on Trump's move against steel and aluminum imports 1:46

So, days after he returned to Canada, Conservatives were noticeably excited to see him stumbling through a comment on steel exports during a news conference. A clip of Trudeau's response was pushed out with the comment "Our Prime Minister!" and pinned to the top of the Conservative Party's Twitter page.

Coming so soon after India, that incident may have seemed more significant than it really was. But the Conservatives also were sowing doubt over something that has been seen as a strength of Trudeau's government: its massive effort to plan for, and around, U.S. President Donald Trump and the renegotiation of NAFTA.

The campaign to contend with Trump

That effort looked to be what other Trudeau government initiatives often haven't been: comprehensive, communicative and nimble, paying attention to the details and leaving nothing to chance. The president was gifted with a framed photo, the First Daughter was taken to a Broadway play, Trudeau spoke at the Ronald Reagan presidential library and governors, cabinet secretaries and congressmen have been chatted up incessantly by a procession of ministers, MPs and premiers.

All of that effort was intended to establish relationships and remind power-brokers that open commerce between Canada and the United States benefits both countries. Ideally, that would help get the NAFTA talks to a mutually acceptable conclusion. In the worst case, it might at least insulate the government from the claim that it didn't do all it could to avert trouble.

No matter where he goes or what he wants to talk about, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently can't escape the spectre of the Jaspal Atwal scandal. Trudeau provided no clarity when asked about Atwal's invitation when he appeared to support multiple theories explaining the scandal. Neither Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale nor the MP who invited Atwal to the events, Randeep Sarai, appear willing or able to clear the air either 2:02

Perhaps some of that time and energy should've been redirected toward thinking harder about Trudeau's wardrobe in India, but the diplomatic effort in the U.S. at least suggests this government knows it will be judged on how well it guides this country through the hurricane of Trump.

Signals out of Washington D.C. Wednesday night suggested the Trump administration isn't planning to immediately impose steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada. If that turns out to be true, the Trudeau government will have grounds to claim a victory.

If, instead, the president decides to push the U.S. into a trade war with its "very smooth" neighbour to the north, Trudeau will be judged on how his government responds — whether it's with calm resolve, retribution or some combination of the two.

But whatever happens with those tariffs, it will be more consequential than Trudeau's choice of formal wear while abroad. If he handles the Trump file well, memories of India might fade.

But if things seem to get out of hand with the Trump administration, he might only confirm the doubts that were raised by that debacle.

Trudeau is planning to visit steel and aluminum workers in three provinces next week. And if he has any doubts about dressing appropriately for this tour, all he really has to do is just roll up his shirt sleeves.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his controversy-plagued trip to India in the House of Commons, as opposition leader Andrew Scheer questioned the government's explanation that rogue factions in India helped facilitate the appearance of a convicted terrorist at an event in attempt to embarrass Trudeau. For his part, Trudeau is backing the theory, but it hasn't stopped Canada's Indian community from questioning whether the trip will have any positive impact 2:09

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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