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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a Liberal Party caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on April 2, 2019.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

One of the odd details about the SNC-Lavalin affair is the way Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described its cause: a breakdown in trust between his former attorney-general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and his former principal secretary, Gerald Butts.

That was Mr. Trudeau’s explanation in the only full-blown news conference he has given on the matter, on March 7.

It’s still noteworthy, because Mr. Trudeau himself was nowhere in the tale. It wasn’t about his relationship with his cabinet minister. It was about a relationship he wasn’t in.

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Odd, isn’t it? Mr. Trudeau is the politician known for his EQ – emotional intelligence. He emotes. He has empathy. But the SNC-Lavalin affair underlined his surprising weakness in handling key relationships – the professional relationships with his own ministers.

Mr. Trudeau, after all, was supposed to be running a cabinet imbued with modern-age sensitivity. Work-life balance. Listening. But there hasn’t been as much bonding as you might expect with the high-EQ PM.

Stéphane Dion, a veteran of the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin cabinets, left one of Mr. Trudeau’s early cabinet retreats asking, according to individuals who worked with him, why everyone was talking about their feelings.

Within a year, Mr. Dion was gone, pushed out as foreign affairs minister and into an ambassador’s job in Germany. Mr. Trudeau had never met one-on-one with Mr. Dion in the whole time they served in cabinet together, Mr. Dion’s former adviser Jocelyn Coulon reported in his 2018 book, Un Selfie Avec Justin Trudeau.

Yet it turns out that’s not so outlandish. Many of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet ministers rarely sit down with him alone. They have been in cabinet meetings with Mr. Trudeau, and in group meetings. But a tête-à-tête, with just two – that’s very rare. His senior aides, notably Mr. Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford, have handled ministers more.

Some Liberals worry that Mr. Trudeau doesn’t have much of a relationship with a lot of his cabinet ministers – that when things get tense, there isn’t much of a bond to fall back on.

Wilson-Raybould says Trudeau ‘never took responsibility’ as Philpott calls expulsions ‘mistake’ that ‘could backfire’

Trudeau defends expelling Philpott, Wilson-Raybould, as well as his leadership

Liberals seek new Vancouver-Granville candidate in the wake of Wilson-Raybould’s ouster

Maybe that would never have saved the day with Ms. Wilson-Raybould. There’s no doubt that many staffers viewed her as prickly and intransigent. Maybe a direct personal relationship would not have solved the problem. But maybe a closer relationship would have made it easier to come to terms, or hash out explanations, with the other former minister, Jane Philpott.

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Ms. Philpott, at least, met the PM one-on-one more than Mr. Dion. “It’s been more recently,” she told The Globe and Mail’s Laura Stone on Wednesday. “But I would say about six times.

But that’s still a half-dozen meetings for a minister who served in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet for 3½ years and was shuffled twice. She was health minister for nearly two years that included controversial negotiations with the provinces over a health accord, the first minister in a new portfolio, Indigenous Services, that Mr. Trudeau deemed a high priority, and then briefly held the post of Treasury Board president before she resigned.

Prime ministers are busy, and Mr. Trudeau has 34 members in his cabinet. But Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin tried to tend cabinet and caucus relationships – Mr. Chrétien invited favourites to the prime ministerial summer residence, Harrington Lake, but also occasionally met with Mr. Martin, the finance minister with whom he shared a famously strained relationship. Mr. Coulon noted in his book that John Baird, the foreign affairs minister for most of Stephen Harper’s third term, regularly met with his PM, and could pick up the phone to call.

To be fair, Mr. Trudeau’s one real mea culpa in the SNC-Lavalin affair was about this.

In that March 7 news conference, Mr. Trudeau said he should have been aware of the erosion of trust between Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Mr. Butts. He said he should have followed up with her personally. He said he should have created an environment in which members of his cabinet and caucus felt they could come to him with concerns.

Presumably, he’s working on it now. Maybe he had just been caught in old habits – after all, he was a success, winning an election, as leader of a party with 34 seats and a tight-knit circle of aides. Perhaps he never came to grips with the need for face time with a larger team. It’s still surprising the high-EQ PM is learning that only now.

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