It has been a crisis of crises. The coronavirus, which threatens lives and the economy. Rail blockades. Before that, fears of a Middle East war and the downing of an airliner carrying 85 Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the lesson of early 2020 was that being seen dealing with a crisis is good, and not being seen dealing with one is bad.
But there’s something else: The Prime Minister’s own attitude has become a talking point.
Conservative leadership candidates have alleged he has checked out in a time of crisis. In private, some Tory MPs speculate Mr. Trudeau won’t run in the next election. Liberal MPs have heard the talk from constituents: Has Mr. Trudeau gone missing?
But there’s no evidence the PM has checked out. He has handled lots of crises in 2020. The evidence suggests something else: his trouble picking a path forward, and moving on.
Mr. Trudeau isn’t having a crisis-management crisis, but he may be having a bit of an identity crisis.
Since last October’s chastening election, he hasn’t really given Canadians a clear sense of where he is headed. When he hits a fork in the road, he plows down the middle.
Some things have changed visibly, including Mr. Trudeau’s beard, and his tendency to say less and have ministers say more. There’s an effort to be more business-like. But Trudeau 2.0 is still enigmatic.
The record shows he handled crises. The Incident Response Group, an ad hoc cabinet committee created in August 2018 to replace the monthly meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Intelligence and Emergency Management, has been convened about 20 times in its 19-month existence – but more than half of those meetings were in the first two months of this year.
Mr. Trudeau didn’t rush back from holiday for two days when a Jan. 3 U.S. drone attack killed an Iranian general and triggered fears of war. But by the time Iranian forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner carrying dozens of Canadians on Jan. 8, he was holding daily press conferences – including breaking the news that the plane was shot down.
He played to his strengths. He set the guiding notion that the Canadian response would be built around victims’ families. That fit his empathic skills and set an agenda: Canada wanted repatriation of remains, compensation and a full investigation. He made a quick decision to take the conclusion that the plane was shot down public and to give Iran an off-ramp to admit its blunder by acknowledging the downing might have been an accident.
The Incident Response Group is just a pre-organized set-up for ad hoc meetings with a shifting cast of characters, but it became the venue for Mr. Trudeau’s response.
For Flight 752, meetings involved the Foreign Affairs Minister, Defence Minister, Transport Minister, as well as military and intelligence officials.
For coronavirus, the meetings drew in the Health Minister, Chief Public Health Officer and Foreign Affairs Minister. In that case, Mr. Trudeau is said to have mainly posed a lot of questions – whether people without symptoms can transmit the disease, or what other countries were doing, for example.
The committee became a PR tool, too, highlighted to show the government it was on the job. And until Mr. Trudeau marred his own PR by being photographed smiling at Iran’s foreign minister, it was going smoothly.
Of course, the blockades of rail lines in early February were not smooth. Mr. Trudeau was in Africa at first, but that wasn’t the issue; Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland could have jumped in, if she had instructions. But back home, PMO aides were too slow to see the blockades become crisis, and then believed it was about to be resolved.
But when he did come back, Mr. Trudeau did make a decision, just an unpopular one: to err on the side of talking with First Nations before signalling he had lost patience. He did dispatch ministers to talks that helped cool tensions.
So it’s not a question of whether Mr. Trudeau is hands-on in a time of crisis. But there is a question of whether he has decided what to be in term two.
The blockades crisis led to an agreement with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs his government doesn’t want to talk about. Mr. Trudeau hasn’t said much about what happens to reconciliation now.
Big decisions, like the now-withdrawn application for cabinet approval of the Frontier oil sands project, have deadlocked Mr. Trudeau’s government.
People around Mr. Trudeau don’t talk like he is less-intensely into the job. But they do suggest he has been chastened. He worried about national unity after last fall’s election; He questioned whether his virtue-signalling politics are divisive. One or two suggest he was humbled by the blackface scandal during the election, while others insist it goes back a year, to the time of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Something has changed, but it isn’t that the PM has checked out. The less-swaggering Justin Trudeau 2.0 hasn’t given a clear sense of direction.
Editor’s note: (March 9, 2020): A previous version of this column said cabinet approval of the Frontier oil sands project had been withdrawn; in fact, the application for cabinet approval was withdrawn.