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‘Risky’ coffee shop tour brings Trudeau back on brand: strategists

By Peter Mazereeuw      

‘Question Period on steroids’ means preparing for everything and anything, says ex-Tory staffer Yaroslav Baran.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fields questions during a Q&A with members of the public in Peterborough, Ont., Jan. 13. Mr. Trudeau took heat from several attendees about the cost of hydro in Ontario, and what a carbon tax would mean for them. Photograph courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office
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Forget the headlines; the prime minister’s tour of coffee shops and community centres this month has been a winning political tactic, say pollsters and political strategists.

Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) campaign-style tour across the eastern part of the country before his cabinet retreat in Calgary this week may be unprecedented in recent times. A handful of political analysts and lobbyists contacted by The Hill Times could not recall another recent prime minister roaming the country to take unscripted questions from voters, so soon after winning an election.

The trip is an attempt to get the Liberals on the front foot again by playing to Mr. Trudeau’s strength as a retail politician, after months of negative press about fundraising and influence scandals, and before the federal budget, the politicos said.

It will likely work, despite the cascade of negative headlines that came out of the tour, they said.

“Everyone who is working with the prime minister on these events realizes that what you gain from these conversations—even if you do get a bit of a rough ride, with a couple of questions—the gains far outweigh…the few negative stories that you may have to deal with,” said John Delacourt, who left his post as director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau in December to join the Ensight public affairs firm in Ottawa.   

‘They’ll remember that he showed up’

Mr. Trudeau travelled through 17 cities and towns in four provinces between Jan. 12 and 18, holding photo-ops and question-and-answer sessions with locals at community centres, restaurants, and something called an “aquatarium.”

The Q&A sessions generated headlines, many of them negative, when the prime minister was put on the spot with questions that lumped the federal Liberal carbon tax in with unpopular Ontario hydro hikes, reminded everyone that the Phoenix pay debacle hasn’t been resolved for Canada’s public servants, and raised problems with the government’s handling of veterans and transgendered prisoners. Mr. Trudeau also provoked a backlash and widespread press coverage when he spoke of phasing out the oilsands, and answered in French a question in English about accessing English services in Quebec.

“There always is some risk when you’re doing a completely open-mic format, and the primary risk is that you’ve got to be very well briefed,” said Yaroslav Baran, a strategist with Earnscliffe Strategy Group and former Conservative staffer.

“It’s sort of like Question Period on steroids, and you don’t have the benefit of being able to defer questions to your cabinet ministers. You have to have something to say on everything.”

Mr. Trudeau during another Q&A in Fredericton, N.B., on Jan. 17. Photograph courtesy of the PMO

The town-hall tour was no doubt an effort by the prime minister’s team to remind those who voted for Mr. Trudeau why they did so, after a fall dominated by stories about questionable fundraising events and political donations, and, more recently, Mr. Trudeau’s vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island, said the analysts.

Those controversies began to build up an image of out-of-touch elitism around the prime minister, said Mr. Baran.

Putting Mr. Trudeau into the Q&A sessions was “risky”, but a challenge to which he is well-suited, said Robin MacLachlan, a former NDP staffer who is now a strategist with Summa Strategies, adding he couldn’t recall another prime minister better suited to “grip-and-grin” retail politics.

“Putting him in a position to field tough questions in an unscripted environment shows the public that he’s listening. And I think he badly needed that after the fall that he had,” he said.

The tour was likely also intended to generate some positive buzz ahead of the government’s upcoming budget, which may include forecasted long-term deficits, said Nik Nanos, who chairs the Nanos Research polling firm.

So far from an election, the negative news headlines will fade from memory for many voters, but the image of Mr. Trudeau putting himself in the firing line will remain, said David Coletto, CEO of the polling firm Abacus Data.

“People may not remember those specifics, but they’ll remember that he showed up,”  he said.

“The real value from a political marketing perspective is the images that come out of it.”

The average non-partisan Canadian doesn’t often tune into federal politics or vote on policy, but catching an image of Mr. Trudeau fielding tough questions from average men and women could help to build a positive impression of him in their minds, said Nelson Wiseman, director of the University of Toronto’s Canadian Studies Program.

Accountability in the polls

Public polls conducted by Abacus Data show Mr. Trudeau’s approval rating softened between January and December of last year. He was scored higher on “level of openness and accountability” than any other indicator by Canadians in three polls through that period, but that score declined from 91 per cent approval in January to 80 per cent in December.

“It’s not so much that they’re solving a problem, I think as opposed to just continuing to remind people why they liked Mr. Trudeau in the first place,” said Mr. Coletto.

After the eastern leg of his tour, Mr. Trudeau pivoted to the Liberal cabinet retreat this week in Calgary, though he was set to host another town hall in the city after the retreat wrapped up Tuesday night. Parliament returns from its winter break Jan. 30, and from there preparations for the next federal budget, due in February or March, will kick into high gear.

Mr. Trudeau will likely continue to face questions from the press and opposition about political fundraising, investigations into his conduct by the ethics and languages commissioners, and how much taxpayers were billed for his coffee-shop tour.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

Justin Trudeau’s whistle-stop tour: Jan. 12-18

Miller’s Oven restaurant, Manotick, Ont.

Aquatarium, Brockville, Ont.

City hall, Kingston, Ont.

Ellena’s Cafe, Napanee, Ont.

Empire Theatre, Belleville, Ont.

Canadian Forces Base, Trenton, Ont.

Rhino’s Roadhouse restaurant, Bewdley, Ont.

Evinrude Centre, Peterborough, Ont.

BioSteel Centre, Toronto, Ont.

University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.

Java Blend Coffee Roasters, Halifax, N.S.

Dartmouth Sportsplex, Dartmouth, N.S.

Cultural Centre, Fredericton, N.B.

Market Square Atrium, Saint John, N.B.

Tim Horton’s, Hampton, N.B.

Colonel Gaétan Côté Armoury, Sherbrooke, Que.

Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Que.

Cantine Chez Ben restaurant, Granby, Que.

Memorable moments on the tour

Thank you for using our country’s two official languages, but since we’re in Quebec, I’ll respond in French.

—Mr. Trudeau, in French, to a question in English during a Q&A session in Sherbrooke, Que. about accessing mental health services in English in Quebec. The next day, Mr. Trudeau said he supported bilingualism, but understood the importance of speaking French in Quebec. He later conceded he could have answered part of the question in English.

“I will make sure we look at it…and we do right in recognizing that trans rights are human rights.

—Mr. Trudeau, in response to a member of the public who decried rules that assign transgender prisoners to federal correctional institutions for men or women based upon their sex at birth, instead of their gender identity.

We both got elected on a commitment to help the middle class and we’re going to be able to find common ground.

—Mr. Trudeau, on dealing with the Donald Trump administration in the United States.

It will be up to the government of Ontario to ensure that you are not penalized…I’m trusting they will do that.

—Mr. Trudeau, responding to members of the public upset about the imposition of a carbon tax on top of high hydro bills in Ontario. Mr. Trudeau told those attending the Q&A session in Peterborough that all funds collected under the carbon tax would be going into provincial coffers.

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