Trudeau better start getting ahead of the stories instead of fighting a continuous rear-guard action

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That means responding quickly and forcefully to false opposition claims and moving aggressively on a progressive policy agenda.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 15, 2019.

OTTAWA—Justin Trudeau has obviously decided that his Kumbayah method of leadership needs a switch.

He came out swinging in the caucus speech, announcing his decision to turf Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott.

And then he moved swiftly by warning the leader of the opposition that Andrew Scheer faces a defamation lawsuit if allegations about Trudeau committing a crime were to continue.

This attack mode runs counter to his normal, sunny disposition and desire to work things out.

Even when he does go out on the attack, he appears reluctant to carry through with it.

Consider the recent case of the legal letter from Trudeau lawyer Julian Porter to Scheer.

Scheer received the letter almost a week before he revealed the contents.

One of the basic rules on communication is that he who leads with the story controls the narrative. So why didn’t PMO get a head start?

Even though Trudeau launched a legal salvo, the public spin on what it could mean was completely in the control of Andrew Scheer.

Trudeau’s seeming unwillingness to get ahead of many stories is one of the reasons that his personal popularity has taken a major hit, following the two-month Jane and Jody show.

Wilson-Raybould’s story was leaked to The Globe and Mail, and the substance was not immediately dealt with in an open and forthright fashion by the prime minister.

She was bitter at being removed from her dream job of attorney general and justice minister. But her treatment of a number of files during her time in justice were sufficient cause for the prime minister to make a change.

No one is a minister for life and it is up to the prime minister to choose his team. Her attempt to promote an anti-Charter justice in the top job of the Supreme Court was itself sufficient to warrant a job change.

But instead of defending his decision with a fulsome explanation of the whole story, Trudeau kept insisting the mess was a simple matter of miscommunication.

It was not.

Wilson-Raybould was blocking documents requested by the Privy Council Office, and criticizing colleagues who dared to ask her whether there were other options in the consideration of a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin.

After weeks of leaks, which painted the prime minister into a corner, Trudeau finally came out to reinforce his commitment to exhaust all options given the jobs that could have been at risk in the SNC-Lavalin case.

Once again, too little, too late.

Even when the Prime Minister’s Office or surrogates went on the attack with their own discrediting leaks, no one seemed able to put a name to a single one of the criticisms.

The final straw occurred when the PMO revealed the reason the firings took so long was because the prime minister was trying to negotiate a way back with the two former ministers.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough was mandated to speak to the media about the negotiations.

She prefaced her remarks by saying she could not speak about the substance of the negotiations.

If not, what was the point of scrumming when you refuse to speak about the message you want to reinforce?

Once again, the former attorney general fired back with a denial of the most damning allegation, that she demanded the prime minister tie the hands of the new minister with the same level of direction that she had decried in her own case.

Wilson-Raybould issued a very carefully worded denial, which was not a direct no.

But since no one on the other side countered it, it muddied the waters and countered the prime minister’s claim that his office had worked diligently to get the two recalcitrant members back on board.

The whole business of who is allowed to fire a member from caucus was confusing because the Liberals took so long to respond to Michael Chong’s claim that the firing was questionable because of new amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act.

Trudeau and his team had three years of sunny stories and positive domestic and international media. Two of his own colleagues have managed to derail that momentum, and now the Liberals are going to have to fight to get back on their agenda.

That means responding quickly and forcefully to false opposition claims and moving aggressively on a progressive policy agenda.

Climate change and gun control are two items that clearly differentiate the Grits and the Tories.

The prime minister better start getting ahead of those stories instead of fighting a continuous rear-guard action.

Editor’s note: This column originally reported that Michael Chong claimed the authority to fire an MP was illegal, but this has been corrected. Mr. Chong did not claim it was illegal, but did question the prime minister’s authority to fire an MP without a caucus vote. At that first caucus meeting, a recorded vote of Liberals MPs was required because of new amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act. Liberal MPs were required to adopt or reject the rule concerning the expulsion of a member by caucus through a secret-ballot vote. That recorded vote never took place, as confirmed by Liberal MP John McKay. That the recorded vote never took place contravened of Sec. 49.8 of the act.

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