When the question came, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seized a golden opportunity to keep his mouth shut.
What about the U.S. election? What about the up-in-the air situation where it was not clear whether Democrat Joe Biden had beaten incumbent president Donald Trump, an unpopular figure in Canada who prematurely declared victory?
The process is under way, Mr. Trudeau said. We’re watching it carefully. “Are you worried?” a reporter piped up. But by then, Mr. Trudeau was wheeling away, committed to saying as close to nothing as possible. In Question Period, he repeated the same bland stuff.
That’s not only forgivable, it’s also wise. A Canadian prime minister doesn’t need to stick his head into the wood-chipper of angry partisan jockeying in the postelection United States. It’s a good time for the PM to say nothing that anyone in the United States will notice.
Mr. Trudeau has been pretty good at that over the four years of Mr. Trump’s presidency. Mostly. He has been an underrated practitioner of the art of smiling blankly while Mr. Trump talked beside him, and ignoring presidential bait on Twitter. It is good sense to follow that tack now.
Canadian prime ministers have been counselled to keep from commenting about U.S. elections.
In 2000, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, himself campaigning for a Canadian election, generally dodged comments on the U.S. presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush as ballot counting and court challenges dragged on for five weeks after voting day. Mostly. It was no secret Mr. Chrétien favoured outgoing president Bill Clinton and his vice-president, and after Mr. Chrétien was re-elected, Mr. Chrétien criticized Mr. Bush’s tax cut proposals. Mr. Bush’s first foreign visit was to Mexico, not Canada.
This time, there’s more risk in sticking a Canadian nose into a divisive American election.
Mr. Biden probably wouldn’t welcome it, either, although Mr. Trudeau is widely assumed to favour him. His campaign officials have for months eschewed talks with foreign governments, fearing they will be accused of encouraging foreign meddling after the controversy over Russian contacts with Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. And the election is not yet over.
But the real potential trouble is that one of the possible winners, Mr. Trump, can easily take offence. The same applies to his political allies and supporters, who will remain even if Mr. Trump loses the White House.
Mr. Trudeau can say and do dumb things when it comes to global affairs, from his expressed admiration for China as opposition leader to a prime ministerial trip to India that included overdone dress-up, shallow diplomacy and an invited guest who had been convicted of attempted murder.
But his decision to stay silent about Mr. Trump has been a strategic success.
There was, especially in Mr. Trump’s early days, some pressure for Mr. Trudeau to chastise the U.S. President for pledging to ban Muslims from the U.S., or imprisoning children at the U.S. border, and many other things. Make no mistake: Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal voter base, and many other Canadians, would have cheered. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh rebuked him more than once for failing to do it.
Yet Mr. Trudeau declared that Canadians expected him to make the U.S. relationship work. On his second visit to Mr. Trump at the White House, he smiled, and coughed quietly, as Mr. Trump remained non-committal on the issue of whether the North American free-trade agreement – no small matter to Canada – was about to die.
There were memorable exceptions. At the close of the 2018 Group of Seven summit in Charlevoix in Quebec, Mr. Trudeau angered Mr. Trump by making a relatively benign statement that Canadians are polite, but wouldn’t be pushed around in NAFTA talks. It was actually really popular at home, and Mr. Trudeau enjoyed an outpouring of support. But he didn’t want to risk a repeat. His biggest dissent since was a 22-second pause before responding to a question about Mr. Trump in June – a response that wasn’t about the President.
There’s even more reason to keep quiet now. No one here or in the U.S. needs Mr. Trudeau’s opinion. Silence has been Mr. Trudeau’s best policy with Mr. Trump. This might just be the last time he needs it. But it’s still a good time to keep quiet.