Politics·Analysis

Justin Trudeau marks the end of spring by not being too interesting

Justin Trudeau was asked what he had learned in his first eight months and here was an opportunity for the prime minister to say something interesting. But one thing Justin Trudeau has apparently learned is that he need not always be particularly interesting at his public meetings with the press.

Prime minister declines to divulge much about what he's learned from 8 months on the job

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at an end-of-sitting news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

With the 20th and final question of the session, Justin Trudeau was asked what he had learned in his first eight months, and here was an opportunity for the prime minister to say something the press gallery might find interesting, a feat he had not achieved in the preceding 29 minutes.

But one thing Trudeau has apparently learned is that he need not always be particularly interesting at his public meetings with the press.

In this case, he paused for a full four seconds before responding.

"You know," he finally began, "I have been focused since my very beginnings in Papineau on being a good MP, on listening to Canadians and serving the folks who've put me in this position to be able to deliver. And we've built a team of people very much focused on exactly that. On demonstrating that a thoughtful, responsible, value-driven group of people who come together to serve the country that they love so well in a positive and respectful way can very much achieve meaningful things for Canadians."

This was not building to the description of any particular lesson. It was something of a mission statement. Or a list of preferred adjectives. 

And with that much on the record, Trudeau pivoted to a restatement of the message he had relayed at the outset of the news conference: that his government's commitment to helping Canadians was now marked by a tax cut, a new child benefit and an agreement to expand the Canada Pension Plan.

Such stuff, he concluded, "is exactly what governments can do when we listen to people, when we work hard every day to serve them and when we always believe that better is possible."

This was either cheesy or cheeky.

Not being too interesting

The lesson about knowing how and when to be interesting dates at least to 2014, when Trudeau tried to make a hockey joke about the Russian incursion in Ukraine and a phallic joke about fighter jets.

Trudeau took questions from reporters for 30 minutes but rarely strayed from tightly focused answers. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Today there were questions about Vladimir Putin and the F-35 respectively, and little of any novelty said about either.

There was a similar lesson this spring when Trudeau purposefully strode across the aisle and suddenly found himself accused, in the most dramatic of terms, of manhandling the opposition whip and elbowing a female New Democrat. Of course, Trudeau's public popularity was untouched. But for a day or so there, it looked like he might actually be in something resembling trouble.

A question about what he'd learned from the elbow incident went unanswered as well this day.

Of course, it is, in part, by being interesting that Trudeau ended up prime minister: boxing a senator; supporting the legalization of marijuana; kicking his senators out of caucus; pledging to run a deficit; starring in slick adverts; being the handsome and charming son of Pierre Trudeau, a young man who voters watched grow up. 

And it was in the wake of the elbowing this spring that Trudeau's government tried being interesting again: compromising on the electoral reform committee and deciding to stop applauding each other.

That he visited the national press theatre again on Wednesday is still somewhat interesting, insofar as a contrast with his predecessor still lingers (speaking of politicians who understood message discipline).

And on Tuesday there'd been the sight of the prime minister, clad in his father's buckskin, rising before dawn to mark National Aboriginal Day with a smudging ceremony and a paddle down the Ottawa River.

Trudeau wore his father's buckskin jacket during a paddle in a voyageur canoe on the Ottawa River after a sunrise ceremony to mark National Aboriginal Day in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Such stuff could easily be dismissed as self-promotion, and new findings by Angus Reid suggest a certain weariness with the prime minister's photo ops. But it's also true that the photogenic and image-conscious prime minister is still rather popular. And it's likely true that one has to do with the other.

A photo op is also not necessarily shallow, at least provided that there is something substantive to match the picture.

The spring past and the fall ahead

The Canada child benefit is significant policy and CPP reform is a significant achievement, the latter achieved on Monday. There is a new law, however contested, on medically assisted death. An inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women could be announced soon.

A hundred other things are the subject of some kind of study or consultation (including, let us dare to imagine, the sorts of reforms that could actually deliver the sort of open and transparent government that a news conference can only hint at). And the rest of the year could be fun, involving varying degrees of progress on electoral reform, a national strategy on climate change, a pipeline decision and new health accords.

All of which could amount to something. Particularly if the budget also gets balanced at some point.

Not answering questions is the sort of thing that can reflect poorly on a politician. But the prime minister is perhaps not particularly concerned about ensuring that his legacy includes a willingness to amuse journalists.

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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