March 31, 2020

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Oh Trudeau: transformed PM chooses confection over condescension

Opinion

Has Prime Minister Justin Trudeau really changed?

Talk to Liberal colleagues, staffers and journalists who cover Parliament Hill, and they will almost undoubtedly try to convince you that Trudeau is a "changed man" after suffering through last fall's election, one of the most bitter and controversial campaigns in Canadian history.

Supporters and mere observers alike will tell you that the incredibly arrogant, chronically self-assured, frequently dismissive Trudeau of the past is gone, replaced by a new, more humble man, thanks to the political bludgeoning he absorbed in October.

From a cabinet revolt to multiple ethics scandals and the black/brown face scandal, he seemed to be everyone's favourite political chew toy. Although he did ultimately win a slim minority mandate, Trudeau has gone from being a rock star in international political circles to a punchline for late-night television comedians.

Those are the kinds of experiences that should change the tone of any political leader. But Trudeau?

Lamentably, journalists and the public saw so little of Trudeau during his three-day visit to Winnipeg that it's tough to tell if the kinder, gentler, more humble Trudeau is a myth spun out of the Liberal marketing machine, or the reality of a man who had a near-death electoral experience.

The prime minister was in short supply at the three-day retreat, often sprinting past the scrum mics and ignoring invitations to comment. For the most part, he seemed quite happy to let his ministers interact with journalists on the major stories of the day. He dropped brief comments here and there, but did very little to earn individual attention.

Perhaps Trudeau knows that out in the open, away from the safety of his security and spin doctors, he is still too vulnerable. Proof of that lingering vulnerability was evident in the city.

On Monday, he visited Oh Doughnuts, an upscale local pastry shop on Broadway, located just a few blocks away from the Liberal retreat at the Fairmont. A photo on the PM's Twitter account showed him hauling out a huge stack of doughnut boxes, with a shoutout to the locally owned shop.

The picture sparked some criticism suggesting that Trudeau was a hypocrite for patronizing Oh Doughnuts, where a dozen fancy doughnuts can cost $47. The critics said he should have gone to Tim Hortons, instead.

Although the gross majority of Twitter response was in support of Trudeau and Oh Doughnuts, at least one television network was prompted to move an online story suggesting that "Canadians" were up in arms about Trudeau's decision to procure pricey doughnuts.

The prime minister was in short supply at the three-day retreat, often sprinting past the scrum mics and ignoring invitations to comment. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

The prime minister was in short supply at the three-day retreat, often sprinting past the scrum mics and ignoring invitations to comment. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

Except that we were not up in arms. This story was more of a make-work project for a bored web producer than real news.

(It should be noted that the doughnut scandal did not qualify as news for the journalists who were in Winnipeg and accredited to cover the retreat. That could be because one of those infamous doughnut boxes somehow made its way into the media filing room in the basement of the hotel. It's hard to write a story raging against the prime minister's doughnuts choice when your fingers are sticky.)

What the doughnut-store choice does show us is that even if Trudeau has not changed, the view that people have of him certainly has. Two or three years ago, nobody would have cared where Trudeau satisfied his sweet tooth. Now, everything he says and does is an opportunity for criticism.

Environmentalists now doubt his commitment to fighting climate change. Indigenous people are suspicious about his ability to make meaningful improvements to their lives. And western Canadians certainly have a pipeline full of concerns about his long-term plans to cripple resource industries.

How does Trudeau win back the confidence of his core supporters and quiet his critics? If his closing news conference at the cabinet retreat is any example, the prime minister is going to try and kill people with kindness.

Now, everything Trudeau says and does is an opportunity for criticism. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

Now, everything Trudeau says and does is an opportunity for criticism. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

Trudeau opened the news conference by expressing his condolences to the Canadian victims of the Ukrainian airliner shot down in Iran. He also offered words of support for Newfoundlanders still dealing with the ravages of a devastating winter blizzard.

"We lean on each other, we support each other through challenges and that's very much the approach Canadians have shown us all over these past weeks," an earnest Trudeau told reporters.

Trudeau promised to seek speedy approval of a new North American Free Trade Agreement and push through construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. He also pledged revised legislation on medically assisted suicide and new restrictions on military-style assault rifles and handguns.

On navigating a minority Parliament, Trudeau said he would seek common ground with opposition parties, but offered no real insight into how he was going to pull off that trick. One can assume that a kindness offensive will be part of the strategy.

Perhaps Trudeau is a changed man. His performance in Winnipeg may be a sign that he has adopted a "less is more" approach to leadership.

Trudeau opened the news conference by expressing his condolences to the Canadian victims of the Ukrainian airliner shot down in Iran. (Mike Sudoma / Canadian Press files)

Trudeau opened the news conference by expressing his condolences to the Canadian victims of the Ukrainian airliner shot down in Iran. (Mike Sudoma / Canadian Press files)

But the true test of his new and improved Trudeau is yet to come.

Next Monday, Parliament reconvenes for what is expected to be a raucous session that will, among many priorities, deal with the passage of a budget for the forthcoming fiscal year. If opposition parties are going to try to topple Trudeau's Liberals sooner rather than later, this will be their big opportunity.

Opposition critics, many of whom suffered through the prime minister's hubris when he had a majority mandate will be looking for some payback now that he cannot take the confidence of Parliament for granted. How he responds to their taunts will tell the real story of the new and improved Trudeau.

Perhaps he could employ some of the tactics he used in Winnipeg. Like contacting Oh Doughnuts and ordering 338 of their finest treats.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, January 21, 2020 at 8:00 PM CST: Fixes typo.

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