RUSSELL WANGERSKY: PM fails another optics test

Russell Wangersky
Published on January 10, 2017

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scoops out ice cream at the COWS location on the Charlottetown waterfront during his 2016 visit.


The saddest part about it is that it’s just plain dumb — oh, and also that, supposedly, it’s a smart guy who’s being this dumb.

Several Conservatives have called for an investigation into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Christmastime travels to the Caribbean. They’re right to do it: Trudeau and his family travelled to stay at the luxury retreat of the Aga Khan — a longtime family friend, to be certain, a pallbearer at Trudeau’s father’s funeral — but also a person whose charitable foundation lobbies for, and receives, Canadian funds for its activities.

New Glasgow, N.S. has a million-dollar problem. A seven-storey problem. And a problem that municipal planners across this region know well.


And while Trudeau may lean on the family connections and personal friendship to justify accepting the invitation, he’s making a mistake.

It’s every bit as much of a ham-handed mistake as the way that the federal Liberals have tried to downplay Trudeau’s appearance at a series of fundraising events where those with enough cash got to have one-on-one time with the prime minister.

Now, everyone can make rookie mistakes: you’d be hard pressed to find a single new government, federal or provincial, that hasn’t managed to put a stick in their own spokes within months of taking office. Heck, it happens so often there should be a word for it, like “neofail” or “proto-admino-pratfall.”

They take lots of forms, but one of the biggest mistakes, year after year, administration after administration, is optics. You pick someone to run a government agency, because, through your own personal experience, you know that person to be good at what they do. What you forget is that the person you know isn’t always seen the same way by the people who elected you.

You think Tom’s a great strategist; you forget that, to everyone else, Tom’s the guy who always picks up the money for the party. The bagman. And suddenly, everyone’s howling about how the fix is in.

I’d be willing to give Trudeau the benefit of the doubt here, especially because he’s relatively early in an administration — but that benefit is quickly running out.

Trudeau is probably well aware that he is, at least in some people’s eyes, carrying his father’s mantle, that his behaviour is both compared to, and tested against, the actions of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

What the current prime minister seems to be unable to grasp is that he’s also carrying the mantle of the excesses of former federal Liberal governments.

When Trudeau shows up for fundraising appearances with well-off special interest groups, when it looks like he’s bending the rules, there are a host of people who remember the Adscam Liberals, who remember the way the Canadian taxpayer was ripped off to help Liberal-friendly businessmen in Quebec. People who remember the “naturally ruling party” Liberals that were so infested with cronyism and self-service that, as a party, they actually managed to deliver a nation to Stephen Harper.

There are plenty of people who still remember the Liberals as a party of entitlement, and are watching to see whether the party has changed its stripes, or only its leader and figurehead.

With that leader apparently unable to understand the lens he’s being seen through, even efforts like cleaning up the Senate — so that the first requirement for becoming a senator isn’t “I’m big in the Conservative party” anymore — will quickly be overshadowed.

Trudeau may be able to look at himself in the mirror and say “I’m not doing anything wrong — I’m not being bought and paid for by any of this.” But what matters is not what Trudeau thinks he knows, it’s what people believe they know about him. And what they desperately don’t want is a hearty serving of the same as it ever was.


Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. H can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.