Sometimes it seems like politicians just can’t win

Show up for a natural disaster and get pilloried. Don’t show up and still get pilloried. It’s reality for 21st-century politicians
By Steve Paikin - Published on April 29, 2019
Justin Trudeau listens to angry man.
A Constance Bay resident confronts Justin Trudeau, claiming that the prime minister’s security detail is interfering with flood-relief efforts. (Justin Tang/CP)

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A video that’s recently gone viral on social media has Justin Trudeau getting blasted by a local resident in Constance Bay, northwest of Ottawa, because the prime minister’s presence — and all the security that’s required to follow any head of government — inconvenienced that resident, he says, for 30 minutes.

If you haven’t seen the video, it’s here.

For me, the whole situation raises a series of questions, starting with: When disaster strikes, what are our expectations for our political leaders?

Given the age in which we live, my hunch is that we expect those politicians to show up at the scene for several reasons. First and foremost, anywhere prime ministers (or premiers) go, they make news. They can use their position as a bully pulpit to garner more public attention for a problem. Relief agencies seeking donations no doubt appreciate that. It may also encourage more volunteers to show up. 

On Saturday, Trudeau showed his support for and lent a sympathetic ear to those suffering through the flooding in eastern Ontario. He also thanked members of the military who were lending a helping hand.

In addition, Trudeau was able to do his own due diligence — to see things for himself and gauge, for example, how much federal disaster relief might be warranted.

Trudeau seemed to do all those things this weekend. He even volunteered to pitch in and help fill some sand bags in hopes of halting the rising waters.

The downside to prime ministers or premiers showing up to these kinds of things is, in part, that they can be accused of showboating for the cameras — sticking around just long enough to get their picture snapped, then taking off.

In addition, the security that accompanies a first minister is usually oppressive and can potentially put unwanted or unnecessary obstacles in the way of those actually trying to ameliorate the situation. 

And, of course, there’s always the public-relations concern that, of the hundreds of citizens volunteering to help, someone will take advantage of the PM’s presence to give him a piece of their mind.

It seems that all of the above happened on Saturday — most notably, the last one. An angry local resident started shouting at Trudeau. What I found fascinating was Trudeau’s reaction. At first, he walked away from his heckler. But when he was chastised for doing that, Trudeau pivoted, walked toward him, and began to engage with him.

He listened to the complaints the man had, which were consistent with some of what’s on the above list (security getting in the way, only interested in a photo-op, trolling for votes). But then Trudeau tried to explain why he was there and what he hoped to achieve.

The other man seemed totally uninterested in what the prime minister had to say, constantly interrupted him, and continued to give him a piece of his mind. Finally, calmly and without exasperation, Trudeau suggested that the man was being “unfriendly and unneighbourly,” and he left.

Did the prime minister do the right thing? Social media is having a field day weighing in on that question. Ontario Proud, an outlet well-known for being critical of anything Liberal, pointed out that former prime minister Stephen Harper’s wife, Laureen, once volunteered an entire day to help with flood relief “and didn’t call a press conference about it.”

But veteran columnist Susan Riley suggests that Trudeau is being unfairly smeared, that there was value in his seeing things first-hand.

A day earlier, Premier Doug Ford did the same thing as Trudeau — visited a flood zone to check things out for himself, held a news conference, filled some sandbags, and got his picture taken — but the coverage was all positive, as there were no hecklers. As one tweeter noted, Ford’s government has cut flood-relief funding, and yet coverage of the two first ministers’ visits was starkly different: “Both Trudeau and Ford had security details, met with volunteers, filled sandbags, and had some photo ops. Only Ford cut flood funding yet #SandBagDude confronted Trudeau. Now the extreme right and their army of bots are trying to make him look like a hero. Hmm, I wonder why.”

Others have pointed out that, regardless of how angry the protester was at Trudeau, he shouldn’t have reamed out the PM in front of his children.

What conclusions should we come to over this incident? The first and most obvious is that Trudeau seems to be in a place politically these days where he can’t win. He showed up for the reasons listed above and was excoriated for doing so. Had he not shown up — perhaps out of fear that his security detail would get in the way, or to avoid being accused of chasing a sweet photo-op — he surely would have been criticized mightily for that too.

How might other PMs have reacted under similar circumstances? I can certainly imagine Jean Chrétien giving the “Shawinigan Handshake” to this angry citizen, the same way he did to Bill Clennett on Flag Day in February 1996. Alternatively, I can imagine Harper ignoring an angry citizen and allowing security to intervene.

Trudeau tried to do something that comes naturally to him — something that falls between the Chrétien and Harper approaches: he engaged, in hopes of winning over his combatant. It’s a tactic that frequently works during Trudeau’s many town halls.

Didn’t work this time. But can we honestly say we’d prefer a PM that beats up or shuns a citizen?
It seems oftentimes in politics these days, you just can’t win, regardless.

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