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Tom Mulcair: Weak communications are the Trudeau Liberals' Achilles heel

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In political communications, “too much” is sometimes worse than “not enough”.

It’s understandable that the Liberals, frustrated at the success of Pierre Polievre’s freewheeling demagoguery, would be tempted to go into overdrive on the message front.

On Monday, the day of Parliament’s return, we saw a case of overdrive becoming overkill.

The Liberal “A-Team” had been pressed into service for a midday news conference.

Five (count ‘em, five) of Trudeau's front benchers showed up with very thin messages. Freeland, Champagne, Anand, Fraser and Miller reported for duty but there was no battle plan.

Make no mistake, by any historical comparison these are all top notch politicians with good administrative skills. Each of them is leadership material. The problem is, the Liberals have never really understood anything about communications beyond the lines that are dutifully prepared for Trudeau to deliver on any given day.

When you fill a press briefing room with five ministers, you’d better have something to say that is pithy, and worth remembering. On that score they fell way short and it reminds one of the analysis by former Finance minister Bill Morneau: on Trudeau’s watch, the PMO exists mostly for the image of the prime minister.

President of the Treasury Board Anita Anand, left to right, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller listen as Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Sean Fraser, second from right, responds to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Unlike previous administrations in Ottawa, there’s no sense that anything, other than Trudeau, really matters. No overarching narrative. No message for the public to retain and connect positively with the government.

Nature abhors a vacuum and into that breach, Poilievre has been pouring a withering fire.

It’s easy to feel a bit of sympathy for team Trudeau. In addition to helplessly watching Poilievre eat their lunch, they just can’t seem to catch a break.

Last week they ran what, by any fair account, was an excellent cabinet retreat in Montreal. On the final day…BOOM, a bolt from the blue just as the wrap-up media round was set to begin.

The federal court decision on the invocation of the Emergencies Act to end the illegal occupation of Ottawa, was made public. It said the exact opposite of what the Commission of Inquiry had stated last year. It was like an anvil in a Roadrunner cartoon, with Trudeau in the role of Wile E. Coyote, helplessly looking up as it inexorably fell towards him.

They promptly bundled Trudeau off and he skipped most of what should’ve been a well-deserved victory lap of media interviews. Chrystia Freeland was left to pick up the pieces but the day’s news had changed in a flash and there was no getting back on any type of positive message for the Liberals.

At Monday’s news conference, Minister Champagne seemed to hold the strongest hand on the public policy front and he made the best of it. Walking the fine line between political interference in a prosecutorial proceeding and a spirited defence of the public interest, he was pushing for stronger regulatory action by competition authorities against the grocery chains. Easy pickings and he did well.

The threat of using newly bolstered powers under the Competition Act could have, and should have, been the message of the day. This was tough stuff. The kind of “we are fed up with price gouging and possible collusion” message an overcharged public was hoping to hear.

Instead of being the key piece, it was enveloped in a cornucopia of side issues that drowned out the message. Political communications 101: pick a topic and stay with it!

Chrystia Freeland did her best, trying to explain the carbon tax rebates. There’s nothing complicated about the system. It’s similar to the GST rebate cheques less fortunate Canadians have received since that tax was introduced.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The problem is, Poilievre has had a year to do the defining and Canadians, as hard pressed at the gas pump as the grocery checkout, believe his version. Freeland’s explanation that eight out of 10 families will receive rebates is true, but it’s not a message that could get through at a press conference.

It would require the type of publicly funded ad campaign that the Conservatives under Harper regularly ran when Polievre was a minister. Problem is, the Liberals seem unaware that there is even an issue, so they’re not looking at solutions.

As if all that wasn’t enough, the Liberal communications gong show also included puerile social media posts from newly hired senior adviser Supriya Dwivedi. In a series of cringeworthy and crude shots at a right wing political influence group, she embarrassed herself and her party. If Trudeau keeps her on, it will be on him.

The lowlight of the day may have been an exchange that included an impromptu interjection by former Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis. Trudeau had taken a sideswipe at her for having had supper with an extreme right wing German politician and was asking Poilievre why he hadn’t done anything about it. Not about to take a lesson in political correctness from Trudeau, Lewis shot back: “you put a banana in your pants” and said people wouldn’t forget that.

Lewis, one of the few Black women in Parliament, was referring to one particular video that became public during the 2019 election campaign, showing Justin Trudeau in blackface.

It wasn’t the first time that Lewis had called out Trudeau for wearing blackface, which she denounced in the past as constituting the “objectifying and denigrating of black men”. So it was a surprise to hear Trudeau try to again attack Lewis personally for that supper with the German politician. No one on his staff appears to have known what he’d be getting back from Lewis.

There is something particularly pusillanimous in a party leader choosing to personally attack an MP via her leader’s exchange, when that MP doesn’t even have the floor and, normally, can’t respond. Trudeau and his team had forgotten that Lewis isn’t exactly the type to sit silently by when she’s being assailed. More tellingly, it was as if Trudeau’s highly touted new executive communications director had missed the last year in politics.

If Trudeau thought he’d be scoring any points by going after Lewis about supper with a German politician, he and his hapless communications team soon learned a very old lesson, that when you spit in the air, you never know where it’s going to land.

It was 2-0 for team Poilievre-Lewis and it was only the first day back on the job.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017

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