How does Trudeau manage to keep a smile on his face these days?

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If Justin Trudeau wants to keep smiling, his people have to start fighting back on all the negativity that is currently emanating from Ottawa. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 20, 2023.

OTTAWA—How does Justin Trudeau manage to keep the smile on his face?

One of the things he must have learned as a small child was that, no matter what is happening around you, when you are in the public eye, you can’t afford to let it show.

With his own children, the prime minister has managed to stay engaged and yet guard their privacy.

That has been smart because no matter what children do, the critics are always ready to jump in.

When the prime minister recently took his eldest son on an international trip, the poor boy was trashed for sporting runners and not dress shoes during a tarmac welcome party.

Give me a break! What teenager doesn’t wear running shoes all the time.

Once you have learned as a child to keep your emotions hidden from the public, that can stay with you all your life.

In my little world, my dad was elected the mayor of my city, Hamilton, when I was in Grade 6.

One of the first issues the new council had to vote on was a pay raise.

Some citizens opposed the raise (even though my father took a 50 per cent pay cut to enter politics) and they paraded outside city hall with a sign saying “Copps and the Robbers.”

Concurrently, I was having a birthday. And as a birthday gift my parents gave me a beautiful leather coat, which I proudly wore to school.

Upon reaching the playground, I was surrounded by a couple of bullies shouting that they had paid for my coat because my father was a crook.

I had just celebrated my 11th birthday and ran home in tears.

My parents convinced me that one of the things so crucial in politics was developing a thick skin to avoid taking every criticism so seriously.

My childhood political experience was a microcosm of what young Justin Trudeau and his brothers must have experienced when their father was the prime minister. They were exposed to jibes and nasty criticisms for things that he might have been doing in government.

Trudeau learned early to keep smiling on the outside. But we know that must be tough on the inside, given the recent marriage meltdown and his falling popularity in public opinion polls.

Is there a way to turn it around?

It is getting tougher as more people line up on the negative side of the equation.

Trudeau and his inner circle are counting on the fact that the likability factor of the leader of the official opposition is also in question.

However, in most instances, when the public has an appetite for change, they don’t necessarily vote opposition leaders in. They simply vote governments out and let the chips fall where they may.

Poilievre has been working hard to soften his image. From the decision to dump the glasses and the haircut, to the massive advertising campaign focusing on his role as a father and husband, the softening-up strategy is working.

And on the Liberal side, the government seems content to let the Conservatives define themselves without any counter narrative that could hurt Poilievre.

Just last month, Alberta United Conservative Party leader Danielle Smith was running anti-government ads in Ottawa, trying to convince Canadians that the Liberal climate plan would result in a four-fold hike in electrical costs in Ontario.

Bizarre as it may be for the Alberta government to be advertising in Ottawa about provincial hydro prices in Ontario, what was more disturbing was that nobody countered her message.

The silence spoke volumes about how the Trudeau Liberals intend to pursue their agenda without attacking their opponents with paid negative advertising.

In sunnier days, that might have been a good strategy. But if Trudeau wants to keep smiling, his people have to start fighting back on all the negativity that is currently emanating from Ottawa.

They are not going to be able to turn the tide with a few friendly newspaper columns. There are simply far too many journalists who have decided that Trudeau’s time is over and he needs to go.

An aggressive paid advertising campaign focusing on some of the positive initiatives of the government needs to be launched as soon as possible.

And that should be coupled with a negative paid campaign pointing out some of Poilievre’s weaknesses.

His radio silence on the new anti-scab legislation is worth pointing out, for example.

For Trudeau to smile inside and out, he needs some paid media support now.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.