Justin Trudeau had a bad day last Thursday in Toronto, as any glance at the headlines will tell you. He was already taking some heat for attending a "ladies' night," and then compounded the controversy by making some ill-advised, off-the-cuff remarks in praise of China's efficient dictatorship.
Trudeau, it's said, learns from his mistakes. So what are the take-away lessons from this very bad day for the Liberal leader?
* First, sarcasm and irony rarely work in the literal-minded world of politics. Note the similarity between "ladies' night" and the China remarks. They were both intended to be tongue-in-cheek (to some extent.)
The women in advertising who dreamed up the controversial invitation for the Trudeau event were no doubt thinking they could use the same tactics in politics that they use for their private-sector clients. (Coincidentally, I noted an email in my inbox last Friday, from a shoe company, inviting me to get "dolled up" for the holidays. Was I offended? Not really, but then again, I am not being asked to consider this company as a candidate to run the country.)
Meanwhile, when you see the China remarks, you note that Trudeau himself knows he's courting controversy. He even baits his Sun News critics to mock him (more on that in a minute.)
Trudeau does have a sarcastic streak --as does Stephen Harper, by the way -- which makes both men more interesting in real life than their image caricatures. But only the rare political animal can pull off self-deprecating humour in public. (Harper's comment this summer: "Do I seem like I smoke marijuana?" came pretty close.) On CTV's Question Period yesterday, columnist John Ivison lamented how public life may turn Trudeau into a bland utterer of banalities; that his verbal gaffes went hand in hand with his not-your-average-politician image. Ivison is right -- Trudeau is going to have to find a way to be different, without being not-ready-for-prime-time different.
* Two, mocking your media critics is silly. I don't say this as a media person, ie., "we'll get you for that." It's just bad luck, or bad karma, or something.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has spent a lot of the past year deriding the media, especially my own newspaper, and look how that's turned out.
Trudeau, meanwhile, appears to enjoy taking pokes at SunMedia. He ignored a question from a CBC producer a few months ago, saying aloud that he was doing so because the question came from the Sun. He should cut this out -- it is all too easy for the public to conclude that the battle between politicians and journalists is a high-school squabble. (In many ways it is.) Yes, it's beyond silly for the Sun commentators to refer to Trudeau with nicknames like Shiny Pony -- note that Rob Ford has been spared any nicknames in most mainstream-media headlines, at least. But leaders should be able to rise above their critics. Trudeau runs the risk of looking like Harper on his bad days, with simply a different cast of media enemies.
* And third, speaking of messing with the media, Trudeau isn't the only person who had a bad Thursday. At the risk of sounding like I'm complaining about my job, allow me to .... complain about my job. (I'm saying this with a smile -- please insert aforementioned, imaginary, sarcasm font.)
I wasn't among the media people in the audience on Thursday night, but it wasn't for lack of trying. I had heard a week or so ago that Trudeau would be in Toronto that day, and planned around it as a way to go see the Toronto Centre by-election campaign on the ground. (Thomas Mulcair was making a similar trip on Friday.) I asked repeatedly whether I could go to the Thursday night event with Trudeau -- no one answered emails, day after day. On Thursday afternoon, while I was out watching Trudeau campaign with Chrystia Freeland, I asked numerous people whether they were going to let me in. Finally, around 4:30, I got an official answer: sorry, no media.
A couple of hours later, much of that taken up with getting from Front St. to St. Clair Ave. (hey Toronto, you have a bad traffic problem, has anyone told you that?), suddenly I heard the doors were open to the media -- too late for me to get back downtown and cover the event, which was getting under way as the email replies were arriving. Emails that had gone unanswered for hours, and days in one case. So if you're wondering why the Star (in the paper version) said the event was closed, that's the reason.
I note this in the context of lessons learned because, beyond causing me headaches, it speaks to a certain raggedness in media management. No one expects the third party to have the communications resources of the PMO or even the official Opposition, but it looked Thursday like Trudeau's team didn't have its act together on how it was handling the media surrounding the "ladies' night" controversy. It was also just bad manners to avoid answers to a serious question.
Moreover, I'm pretty sure the decision to open the doors was based on how things were playing on the political TV shows from 5 to 7 that night -- I don't think it was a coincidence that my messages were suddenly returned after Michelle Rempel's emotional display on Power and Politics.
Trudeau was already on the defensive, in other words, before the event happened. And then, of course, things just got worse.
So, in sum, will Trudeau have other bad days? This being politics, of course he will. But if he is learning anything, they won't look like last Thursday's missteps.