How contending with Trump might help Trudeau move past the India debacle
Prime Minister contends with tariff threats after an embarrassing trip abroad
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.
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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?
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.
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.
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.