Fuss over Justin Trudeau's China comment a lesson for Liberal leader: expert

TORONTO – An admission that he had a degree of admiration for China’s method of governance had Justin Trudeau deflecting a volley of attacks through the weekend, but some suggested the Liberal leader’s comments carried little to be aghast at.

Trudeau drew much criticism after a Toronto event Thursday, where he was asked which nation’s administration he most admired and why.

The Liberal leader provided a layered response, but opponents latched on to the first line of his answer.

“There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime,” Trudeau said, according to reports on the event. “I mean there is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about, of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted, that I find quite interesting.”

Trudeau then went on to address the nub of the question.

“But if I were to reach out and say which…kind of administration I most admire, I think there’s something to be said right here in Canada for the way our territories are run,” he said.

“Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon are done without political parties around consensus. And are much more like a municipal government. And I think there’s a lot to be said for people pulling together to try and solve issues rather than to score points off of each other.”

Trudeau rounded off his answer by quipping “but Sun News can now report that I prefer China.”

At least one political observer said the statements, when taken in their entirety, weren’t surprising, although they did provide Trudeau’s opponents with fodder for an attack.

Indeed, the Conservatives were quick to lash out, firing off an email to members on a party mailing list.

“Justin Trudeau told a crowd of Liberal supporters that the government he most admired was – wait for it – a dictatorship,” Tory MP Paul Calandra wrote before asking for a donation to his party.

“We can’t let this man be our next Prime Minister – donate $5 or whatever you can afford right now so we can fight back.”

The NDP pounced as well.

“Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau found a way to take straightforward questions and skewer himself with his thoughtless answers,” the party said in a release. “Canadians deserve better.”

Federal politics expert Michael Behiels said there was nothing eyebrow-raising about Trudeau’s comments, although the Liberal leader could learn something from the kerfuffle sparked by his words.

“He’s kind of really talking about efficiency, how do you get things done and get them done quickly. Sometimes an overly participatory democratic process becomes messy and delays you from taking action that is necessary,” said the University of Ottawa history professor, adding that Trudeau’s reference to Harper could have been a dig at the prime minister’s “strong man” style of politics.

Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that the Tory machine attacked Trudeau for his words.

“It was almost guaranteed that the PMO and their war room were going to do this, because this is what they do,” said Behiels. “That’s why politicians have to kind of be very, very cautious, especially at the leadership level. They’re really constrained as to how much they can get involved in any kind of discussion.”

Trudeau, who has styled himself as an approachable leader who engages with the public on a variety of topics, took to Twitter to defend himself.

“Canada is the best country in the world. I would never trade our freedoms. But countries we compete with play by different rules,” he said Friday. “That’s why we need to work together to address big issues and that’s why I’m focused on the real priorities of Canadians…My point was that we can learn a lot from the less partisan, more co-operative orientation to politics in the Yukon.”

But that after-the-fact clarification may have come too late for some, said Behiels.

“Trying to explain these things after the fact to people who weren’t there and when it’s already been twisted, is almost impossible,” he said.

“The take away is that Canadians have to take the criticisms of the Conservative partisan machine with a grain of salt and ask for the full quote and the context and make up their own mind…If they do that then they’re not going to be led around by the nose by the excessive partisanship on behalf of any of these parties.”

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