He’s not leader of anything right now, and even if he does win the Liberal crown, it’s a long shot that he will ever get the chance to lead a government. Still, that hasn’t stopped Quebec MP and presumptive leadership front-runner Justin Trudeau from acting like he’s already prime minister.
Trudeau is scheduled to appear at a Liberal rally in Winnipeg on Saturday October 20. This is the first time he is visiting Winnipeg since he announced his intention to run for the leadership of the federal Liberals earlier this month. Once he declared, and even before he confirmed his appearance this weekend, a cadre of Free Press journalists began rousting their contacts in the party to secure a sit-down interview with him whilst in our fair city. In particular, we attempted to get him to do a live webcast interview at the Free Press News Café on McDermot Avenue, where we have interviewed federal politicians such as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Heritage Minister James Moore, among others. Heck, we even had then-interim Grit leader Bob Rae in for a chat.
After nearly two weeks of back-and-forth with local Liberals working on his campaign, and his federal handlers, we were told Trudeau "isn’t doing one-on-one interviews" at the moment. We were free to scrum him after his Saturday gig, the Grit handlers said, but that was the extent of his availability.
The fact is Trudeau is doing one-on-one interviews. He did an "exclusive" interview with the Globe and Mail’s Jane Taber, a veteran ‘inside the ropes’ journalist, for a story that appeared October 6. He also did a sit-down with Maclean’s Magazine for their October 11th issue.
I’m sure what Trudeau’s handlers meant to say is, ‘we’re not doing many one-on-one interviews right now, preferring to work with selected journalists to control access and message.’ Don’t get me wrong, from time to time I’ve been lucky enough to be one of those selected journalists, and appreciate that those who did get interviews with Trudeau did it by making good use of the gravitas of their news organizations and their own relationships with key people in his campaign. Good on them. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good political strategy for this politician, at this delicate stage in the history of the Liberal party.
The frustration is that Trudeau’s handlers are already handling him like he is the prime minister. They are engaging in the same rigid, suffocating, hyper-controlled media strategy that the federal Tories apply when Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels the country. However, while it may seem silly to have to point this out, Trudeau is not Stephen Harper. Not only has he not won anything, he hasn’t even demonstrated he has enough support to win the leadership of his party. This is a time when Trudeau should be out barnstorming the country, meeting as many people as possible and making himself available to the media in an unfettered manner.
This is especially true in a province like Manitoba, where the Grits have been reduced to a single federal seat. Although Manitoba has only a handful of seats (14) in the House of Commons, it serves as a microcosm of the challenge facing the Liberals. At one time, when Liberals commanded enormous majority governments, they held 12 of 14 seats here. Now, it’s down to MP Kevin Lamoureux. Manitoba doesn’t offer a huge trove of seats for the Liberals, but they could be competitive in a half-dozen ridings here with the right leader and campaign. It’s hard to imagine the Liberals, running a distant third in the federal legislature, would turn their noses up at the prospect of adding six seats. As it stands now, Trudeau has virtually no campaign organization in Manitoba. Maybe that's why he's blowing through town so quickly.
It is instructive that when the federal NDP were selecting a leader to replace the late Jack Layton, the majority of candidates in a very large field were readily available for one-on-one interviews. This included the then front-runner and eventually winner, Thomas Mulcair. There seemed to be an overriding belief among NDP hopefuls, that campaigning to lead a federal opposition party was a valuable tool that would help introduce the eventual successor to the country. After all, while only party members get to choose a leader, all voters get the responsibility of choosing a prime minister.
Trudeau certainly doesn’t need the exposure. With his iconic last name, his movie-star good looks, and his willingness to appear bare-chested in charity boxing matches, this is a politician who has already established tremendous brand power. That still does not excuse his campaign’s decision to put him under a bell jar at this early stage of the leadership race.
The Free Press will dutifully cover his appearance Saturday. We will file stories and video for the newspaper and our website. Like clutch of seals at feeding time, we will strain our necks and choke down whatever content Mr. Trudeau is willing to toss our way. Even as we curse the suffocating control exerted by his handlers over the entire event.
One of the biggest problems the Liberals have in rebuilding their once great party is that they still haven’t started thinking like an opposition party. Once dubbed Canada’s "natural governing party," far too many Liberals are walking around in a state of stunned disbelief that they were tossed from office in 2006. They don’t understand why voters have disowned them in former hotbeds of support. And they haven’t figured out that in these days of rampant cynicism and declining voter turnout, their chances of ever regaining past glory will rest in efforts to engage voters who long ago stopped caring about them or politics.
A highly restrictive, intensely selective media management policy may a necessary evil as a tool of governing. It might even be a great strategy to win the Liberal leadership. But as a strategy to rebuild the Liberal party and return it to government, it’s misguided and small-minded.