Trudeau’s Useful Protestors

In any debate, the goal is not to convince your opponent, but to convince your audience.

Justin Trudeau is spending the first month of 2018 travelling the country in a series of town hall events, taking questions from Canadians and offering fairly well-rehearsed answers in return, in what is, admittedly, great PR. In many ways it’s theatre, a stage play.

Political events bring crowds, and crowds bring people who loudly disagree. From Nova Scotia to Ontario, the press has breathlessly covered every heckler to raise their hackles, their cameras swooping to focus on the security scrum while Trudeau gently admonishes them as only a teacher knows how.

I accept that each question at these town hall events is likely scripted and planned for by Trudeau’s team, but is it a stretch to wonder if these more raucous moments were gently massaged as well?

In the 2017 NDP leadership race, then-candidate Jagmeet Singh ‘calmly and positively’ responded to a woman’s emotional questions about the Muslim Brotherhood, and the internet ate it up. The moment went ‘viral’ (I loathe to type the term), and many saw it as a turning point that clinched Singh the leadership position. Whether or not this exchange was actually the race’s deciding factor, it doubtless won him a great amount of good-will. The optics were on Singh’s side.

It would be entirely reasonable for Canada’s Liberal party to hope to gain the same kind of buzz by showing our PM smiling affably as he suffers the verbal tirade of a disgruntled constituent. As above, these events are about optics, not politics, and ”smiling, reasonable liberal humours angry, irrational conservative” is a pat narrative, easily condensed into a news article.

What’s interesting is how the CBC’s treatment of protestors has shifted along with the party being protested.

In 2011, well into Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister, Canadian Senate page Brigitte DePape disrupted a throne speech by sneaking in and unfurling a ‘Stop Harper’ sign. She was promptly scuttled out of the senate, and into the CBC’s welcoming embrace.

If you're going to go to that much effort, plan your margins accordingly

Her protest led to immediate news stories and interviews. She was titled the ‘Rogue Page’ (and later the ‘Former Rogue Page’), and given a national platform to discuss her distaste of Stephen Harper. Long after her protest DePape remained a CBC celebrity. In 2013 an interview asked for insights on her favourite MP, and dreamily wondered if she had any plans to run for parliament. In 2015 she was again brought in to discuss her thoughts (ie. gloat) on the new Liberal Government.

Protestors of conservative governments are ‘Canadian Activists’, de facto political experts and spokesmen for the everyday Canadian. I doubt you’ll see many follow-up interviews on the CBC with the protestors escorted from Trudeau’s performance in London and Hamilton. Although just as angry and disruptive as DePape, they had the misfortune of being angry at wrong government, and are doomed to be cast as the villains in Trudeau’s play.

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