What will it take to beat Justin Trudeau?
That’s the question bubbling through Conservative and NDP minds as the Liberals, despite the Omar Khadr mess, continue to rate 43 per cent in the polls. It must feel like, to paraphrase Donald Trump, Trudeau could shoot someone on Yonge St. and not lose voters.
Despite his apparent Teflon coating, Trudeau does have an Achilles heel. Or at least his office does: its ability to navigate scandal.
The prolonged fumble over future Governor General Julie Payette’s expunged second degree assault charge and involvement in a fatal traffic accident is just the latest example of the Prime Minister’s Office giving a bad story legs.
Had Team Trudeau confirmed the obvious with Payette — that a background check had been done and that it did turn up these incidents, and that they were comfortable enough with the explanations given to proceed anyway — the story would have come and gone in a day.
Lessons are clearly not being learned.
Earlier this month the Prime Minister’s Office took five long days to figure out its story on the Omar Khadr settlement, putting them, for the first time in their mandate, massively offside with public opinion. They still haven’t confirmed the precise amount paid out to Khadr, or why that amount is appropriate.
The PMO took a similar amount of time to come up with their lines on the prime minister’s ritzy Christmas vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island. And last summer’s response to the brouhaha over the six-figure moving expenses for key PMO aides was no better.
Now, every political office struggles with scandal. What should be worrying for Trudeau is the struggles listed above have been in response to known bad news. They weren’t bolts from the blue.
The moving expenses were submitted in response to a Parliamentary question with a known tabling date. The prime minister’s vacation was obviously planned. The Khadr settlement didn’t pop out of thin air. Nor did the appointment of Payette.
Equally troubling is the political importance of the people implicated in these scandals: the prime minister himself; his two top aides; and Her Majesty’s representative in Canada.
These are five-alarm fires. And yet, in each instance, the prime minister and his office struggled to put out a coherent story and get their arms around its poor reception.
If Justin Trudeau and his team put as much effort into defence as they do their offence they would govern Canada for the rest of the century. Perhaps the thinking is they will always be able to outscore their opponents.
There is certainly no one I’d want more to build a political image in the 21st century than Team Trudeau. They are digital ninjas, the swamis of selfies, and magical with memes.
But every government, no matter how successful, eventually grapples with an existential crisis. An “unknown unknown” that strikes out of the blue. And unless the Prime Minister’s Office shapes up it won’t be able to get out from under it when it finally arrives.
I’m not familiar with the intimate details of how this PMO operates, but it seems the issues management team (defence) is out of sync with their colleagues in communications (offence).
In the normal run of business this isn’t a problem. The communications team’s focus is on putting the prime minister out to frame the government’s positive messages, while the issues management team keeps an eye on the niggling daily fires that need putting out.
It’s when these two worlds collide that serious trouble lurks. Something, whether it’s a process or the personalities involved, is preventing the government from responding effectively.
If Justin Trudeau wants to keep his exalted position in the polls he’ll need to devote some of his summer holiday to sorting this problem out.