Commentary: Trudeau’s time is now – to lead us out of the abyss

Commentary: Trudeau’s time is now – to lead us out of the abyss

Ian Haysom, a veteran journalist and writer, is a news consultant for CHEK. His coronavirus diary will appear here regularly.

Justin Trudeau, every day during this crisis, comes out of the front door of his home and seeks to inform, reassure and lead us out of the abyss.

He’ll make a short statement, answer a reporter’s question, then someone yells En francais and he repeats the answer in flawless French.

And always, always, he’s on message. His warm movie-star gaze twinkles into the middle distance and then into our living rooms. He’s an amazing performer. If this was a TV show, you’d cast him as prime minister. Young, handsome, reassuring, calm and collected. Perfectly coiffed. His voice is a tad breathless. Robert Redford on speed.

He rarely deviates from the script. It’s up to you Canada, he says. And your government is doing everything it can to keep you safe.

And he delivers a clear message. This is what he had to say Wednesday: “Listening to public health rules is your duty. Staying home is your way to serve. So be smart about what you do, the choices you make. That is how you will serve your country and how we will all serve each other. How well we do this right now determines where our country will be in two weeks or two months. It’s in our hands. It’s in your hands.”

Stirring stuff. And he delivers it expertly.

When it comes to media questions, it’s a different story. He’s an expert at dodging questions, or not giving direct answers. Again and again Wednesday morning, reporters asked him when he was going to release details on the modelling of how bad things can get.

Or, more precisely (though nobody has been so crass to ask him this directly) how many do we think are going to die in Canada? We know there’s a range of figures in the United States, from a low of 100,000 to a high of 250,000. Are we 10 per cent of that, the usual yardstick used to compare ourselves to our neighbour, ten times bigger. So, 10,000 or 25,000? Fewer? More?

He kept repeating that he wanted to get the figures correct, that the federal and provincial governments needed to check their modelling data, and then he told us, correctly, that the figures would depend on how well Canadians do at self-distancing and staying home.

Fair enough. But we know he’s seen figures. Is he hiding them? We’ll release figures “soon” he said. And then “within days”.

Are you, asked a reporter, afraid that releasing the projections would cause widespread panic.

Trudeau dodged the question. And went back to the core messaging. He didn’t directly answer a question either about whether Canadians brought back from that stranded cruise ship in Florida would be quarantined. All Canadians will be expected to self-isolate he said. Which wasn’t a direct answer. Earlier cruise ship passengers were made to quarantine in Trenton.  So, yes, we got a vague response, a half-answer, not the full-meal deal.

“With respect,” a reporter has said more than once during his morning briefings, “you didn’t answer my question.” And then he goes and doesn’t answer it again.

At times in his daily briefings, he’s seemed almost robotic, less folksy. He trots out his answers,  the messaging as if he’s rehearsed it word for word, which he undoubtedly has. Every political and business leader these days have media coaches, often former journalists, who train them on staying on message, not straying off into dangerous territory.

Trudeau is not unlike most every politician in the world who delivers carefully-rehearsed non-answers, but in him, I find it disappointing. We hear less of the natural, off-the-cuff politician we saw at the beginning of his first term.  He’s now more cautious about what he says, careful not to step on a landmine. I get it. We need the facts. But not trotted out like a script that he’s just memorized.

Yes, these are different times, unprecedented (and how much is that word over-used these days) and perhaps it’s not a time for folksy. But a time for calm and reassurance, and Trudeau, for the most part, is certainly delivering here. We just need a little more “real” and a little less controlled mantra-speak.

There was an excellent moment of leadership Wednesday when he told us this was our moment. Our grandparents fought for Canada in a world war. Our mothers fought for equality. And now we have to work together for one of the biggest fights of all. Stirring stuff.

He invoked Team Canada. We are a team. In this together. And he mentioned that Bauer, who make hockey equipment, are now making masks to protect health-care workers. Quintessentially Canadian.

He has been, and I applaud him for this too, respectful of the provinces, of Confederation itself. He told us he’d wait to enact the Emergency Measures Act, where the federal government can order, rather than just encourage us to behave,  until the provinces had done all they could first. And he looks sincere when he says consultation and cooperation with the provinces are crucial to winning this battle.

We tend to rally around our leaders at a time of crisis, and I have a sense that’s happening in Canada. Most of the country seems to be behind Trudeau. It helps, I guess, that Opposition leaders are not hammering him every day, which could look almost unpatriotic, though Conservative leader Andrew Scheer did pop up from behind his parapet to tell us he wasn’t happy about some of what’s been done so far, and promptly went back to being a lame duck again, You wonder how we’d have been if he’d been leading us through all this.

Even Donald Trump’s approval rating has gone up during this crisis, even if he has fumbled it for weeks. He used the word “humanitarian” yesterday, saying it was more important to save lives than save the economic system, though it was April Fools Day so we can’t be sure if he was serious.

This is the biggest test of Trudeau’s leadership, his FLQ crisis, his moment to shine, to lead, to govern, to make his mark on history. A little more transparency is needed, perhaps, a little less robot, a little more human being, but overall he’s doing a good job. Statesmanlike, even. And he will continue to grow in stature, I think.

The best moment Wednesday was at the end when a reporter noted he’d cleared his throat a few times. Was he sick?

Trudeau smiled broadly. Not at all, he said, but he was out here for an hour in the cold every morning, and next time he should probably wear his scarf. “But thanks for your concern,” he said. A nice moment. He should share more of that Trudeau when he comes outdoors every day and leave the robot inside.

Read the previous diaries here:

Commentary: The Coronavirus Diaries March 18, 2020

Commentary: The Coronavirus Diaries March 19, 2020

Commentary: The Coronavirus Diaries March 20, 2020

Commentary: The Coronavirus Diaries March 22, 2020

Commentary: The Coronavirus Diaries March 23, 2020

Commentary: The Coronavirus Diaries March 24, 2020

Commentary: The Coronavirus Diaries March 25, 2020

Commentary: The Coronavirus Diaries March 26, 2020

Commentary: Living in a bubble world

Commentary: Living in a virus virtual world

Commentary: No April Fools. That’s no joke

Commentary: Get ready for the long haul – and hunker down

Ian HaysomIan Haysom

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