Forget the headlines; the prime ministerâs tour of coffee shops and community centres this month has beenÂ a winning political tactic, say pollsters and political strategists.
Justin Trudeauâs (Papineau, Que.) campaign-style tour across the eastern part of the country beforeÂ 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. Trudeauâs 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.
âEveryone who is working with the prime minister on these events realizes that what you gain from these conversationsâeven if you do get a bit of a rough ride, with a couple of questionsâthe gains far outweigh…the few negative stories that you may have to deal with,â 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. Â Â
Mr. Trudeau travelled through 17 cities and towns in four provinces between Jan. 12 and 18, holding photo-ops and question-and-answerÂ sessions with locals at community centres, restaurants, and something called an âaquatarium.â
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 hasnât been resolved for Canadaâs public servants, and raised problems with the governmentâs 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.
âThere always is some risk when youâre doing a completely open-mic format, and the primary risk is that youâve got to be very well briefed,â said Yaroslav Baran, a strategist with Earnscliffe Strategy Group and former Conservative staffer.
âItâs sort of like Question Period on steroids, and you donât have the benefit of being able to defer questions to your cabinet ministers. You have to have something to say on everything.â
The town-hall tour was no doubt an effort by the prime ministerâs 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. Trudeauâs vacation on the Aga Khanâs 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 âriskyâ, 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 couldnât recall another prime minister better suited to âgrip-and-grinâ retail politics.
âPutting him in a position to field tough questions in an unscripted environment shows the public that heâs listening. And I think he badly needed that after the fall that he had,â he said.
The tour was likely also intended to generate some positive buzz ahead of the governmentâs 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.
âPeople may not remember those specifics, but theyâll remember that he showed up,â Â he said.
âThe real value from a political marketing perspective is the images that come out of it.â
The average non-partisan Canadian doesnât 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 Torontoâs Canadian Studies Program.
Public polls conducted by Abacus Data show Mr. Trudeauâs approval rating softened between January and December of last year. He was scored higher on âlevel of openness and accountabilityâ 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.
âItâs not so much that theyâre solving a problem, I think as opposed to just continuing to remind people why they liked Mr. Trudeau in the first place,â said Mr. Coletto.
After the eastern leg of his tour, Mr. Trudeau pivoted toÂ the Liberal cabinet retreat this week in Calgary, though he was set to host another town hall in the cityÂ 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.
Millerâs Oven restaurant, Manotick, Ont.
Aquatarium, Brockville, Ont.
City hall, Kingston, Ont.
Ellenaâs Cafe, Napanee, Ont.
Empire Theatre, Belleville, Ont.
Canadian Forces Base, Trenton, Ont.
Rhinoâs 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 Hortonâs, Hampton, N.B.
Colonel GaĂ©tan CĂŽtĂ© Armoury, Sherbrooke, Que.
Bishopâs University, Sherbrooke, Que.
Cantine Chez Ben restaurant, Granby, Que.
âThank you for using our countryâs two official languages, but since weâre in Quebec, Iâll respond in French.â
âMr. 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.
âI will make sure we look at it…and we do right in recognizing that trans rights are human rights.â
âMr. 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.
âWe both got elected on a commitment to help the middle class and weâre going to be able to find common ground.â
âMr. Trudeau, on dealing with the Donald Trump administrationÂ in the United States.
âIt will be up to the government of Ontario to ensure that you are not penalized…Iâm trusting they will do that.â
âMr. 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.