There are many ways to pick apart Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mediocre and ineffective leadership style. But you have to say this much about him: when it comes to defending embattled Liberal ministers, he could easily win an Academy Award.
Trudeau isn’t unique when it comes to protecting and defending his front bench. Other Canadian political leaders have done this. My old friend and boss, Stephen Harper, did it a time or two when he served as prime minister.
Nevertheless, it’s almost become an art form for this PM. When you consider that one of Trudeau’s former vocations was teaching drama at a private school, it makes some sense.
Here’s an example of a typical performance.
The curtain rises. Trudeau is either in his office or the cottage near 24 Sussex Drive. He’s in a good mood, transfixed on the beautiful weather outside his window.
“Sunny ways, my friends,” he says. “Sunny ways.”
The glorious scene suddenly turns into a tragic nightmare. Why? One of Trudeau’s ministers has apparently got into some sort of a mix-up again. His senior staff members and spin doctors are going to have to be called in, one by one.
“Dark days, everyone,” he says. “Dark days.”
Look what’s happened to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. He may or may not have known about allegations of inappropriate behaviour involving General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff for the Canadian Forces. This may have occurred in 2018, according to the testimony of former military ombudsman Gary Walbourne to a parliamentary committee. Sajjan may have also been involved in consultations related to Vance’s pay raise after the fact (although he’s denied this). That’s according to testimony by Janine Sherman, a deputy secretary to the cabinet, at this same committee.
Vance was charged with obstruction of justice on July 15. His successor, Admiral Art McDonald, ultimately stepped down due to his own allegation of sexual misconduct. He remains under investigation.
Both controversies were under Sajjan’s watch. Yet, Trudeau keeps him in cabinet.
There’s also Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett. She found herself in the midst of controversy, too. Earlier this month, CBC News interviewed more than a half-dozen Indigenous and non-Indigenous former staffers that worked for her between 2016-2020. There were reportedly verbal complaints about the workplace environment that were never dealt with. “The office was very toxic,” one staffer said. “That… affected the ability of the office to really move things. It could be toxic and good people don’t stay for toxic.”
“So many dark days,” Trudeau says. “So many dark days.”
As it happens, Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould is leaving politics due to Parliament becoming “toxic and ineffective.” Bennett was also involved in this matter. In late June, it was revealed she had privately texted Wilson-Raybould a one-word response, “Pension?,” in relation to her years of Indigenous activism. Bennett, who’s been an MP since 1997 and should have known better, was forced to apologize for making this offensive juxtaposition. Trudeau hasn’t removed her from cabinet, however.
The PM remembers his battles with Wilson-Raybould and the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Fighting with Canada’s first Indigenous minister helped reduce his majority government to a minority in 2019. It led to the resignation of Treasury Board President Jane Philpott, a respected family physician who was displeased with the way he had treated her friend, Wilson-Raybould. There was also Celina Caesar-Chavannes, a black Canadian MP who once served as his parliamentary secretary. She resigned around the same time as Wilson-Raybould, alleging episodes of racism and micro-aggressions in their private conversations.
Oh, let’s not forget Julie Payette. She wasn’t a minister, but the PM appointed her to the ceremonial role of Canada’s Governor-General with great enthusiasm. He defended her to the hilt when she faced a tsunami of trouble and bad press. When an official report confirmed there had been – wait for it – a “toxic environment” at Rideau Hall during her tenure, he gave up and removed her.
“The darkest days,” Trudeau says. “The darkest days.”
My God, he thinks. Another minister is in tr…tr…trouble. It’s hard getting those big words out, as he’s experienced during his speeches, interviews and life in general. While the PM is a bit worried, the wonderful array of costumes in his tickle trunk will keep him amused for days. Maybe weeks. Years, even.
Plus, he has a particular script that he often follows during these difficult times.
When a minister gets into trouble, he refuses to discuss the issue publicly for an extended period of time. He’ll deny any knowledge of the controversy. He’ll have a sudden epiphany that something may have happened in the deepest, darkest corner of the universe. He’ll express stunned horror and faux outrage when the media and public turn against him. He’ll shift to partial admission of the minister’s guilt from an arm’s length perspective. He’ll gradually acknowledge something went wrong. He’ll claim the minister (and others) experienced it differently. Finally, he’ll flip the script to ensure his government’s mistake becomes a teaching moment for all Canadians.
“Sunny ways, my friends,” Trudeau says. “Man, I love those sunny ways.”
As the curtain closes on yet another dramatic performance, some in the audience may desire a repeat performance. Most of us don’t. To ensure the latter scenario occurs, they know what they need to do later this fall to permanently close down Justin Trudeau’s one-man show.