Facebook Instant Articles

How Justin Trudeau makes town halls work

The PM is at home on the stage, managing the energy level in the room even when questions turn hostile, or his answers start to bore
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes a question during a town hall event at Western University in London, Ont., on Thursday, January 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Geoff Robins

Watching Prime Minister Justin Trudeau managing an hour-and-a-half town hall meeting can be like peering inside a mechanism designed to regulate the level of energy in a system. In a gym at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., Trudeau works from centre court, turning, pacing, pausing, as he scans the crowd encircling him in chairs set out on the hardwood and up in the bleachers, picking the lucky few—“Yes, you in the bluish shirt…”—from the many hands raised.

If the question is easy, and the energy level in the room begins to drop, Trudeau might inject a little something extra into his response. For instance, when he’s asked about how women are underrepresented in many industries, his answer drifts for a while into platitudes about the value of diversity. Then, evidently sensing he’s losing the crowd, he suddenly volunteers the information that his government is “taking a look at mandatory paternity leave”—a policy idea from Europe aimed at pushing dads to help out more with newborns. And he’s got their attention again.

Trudeau goes the opposite way if a topic threatens to be a little too energizing. The takeover of a local construction company by a state-owned Chinese firm is a sensitive issue just now in Hamilton. When he’s asked about it, Trudeau takes the most leisurely possible route toward blandly describing the federal foreign-investment review process. “We, as a country, have an awful lot to offer the world,” his answer begins. This is how taut questions become springboards for relaxed replies—the questioner’s energy dissipating through the swan-dive arc of Trudeau’s answer.

READ MORE: Watch Canadians grill Trudeau over ethics and pot legalization

The Prime Minister is on a national town-hall tour this month. He started 2017 the same way. Admission is open and the questions aren’t vetted. Obviously, Trudeau and his advisors believe these unscripted exchanges play to his strengths. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the back-and-forth is always galvanizing. But Trudeau’s easy physicality remains watchable even when the verbiage drags.

Other politicians haven’t been so good at it. When Stephen Harper attempted campaign events with a handheld microphone and no podium, he moved with the deliberation of a someone instructed to move. Michael Ignatieff, in his ill-fated 2011 run as Liberal leader, was far better at question-and-answer sessions, staged in-the-round. He would sometimes freeze and bow his head, listening intently to a question, a portrait of intellect in action. It worked in the room, but didn’t translate for TV clips.

Trudeau’s athleticism serves particularly well when he’s surrounded. His unhurried turning, usually clockwise, keeps all parts of the McMaster gym engaged, exerting a centripetal tug on the crowd. By now, his familiar look—no jacket, top collar unbuttoned, necktie neat all the same—is a trademark. If he varied it, that would be news. Still, there’s built-in suspense in these events: outbursts of protest are pretty much guaranteed. In fact, they are essential. How can Trudeau prove his unflappability unless there’s a flap?

In both Hamilton, this past Wednesday, and in London, Ont., the following evening, he stoically waited out protestors who stood in their places and hollered at him. Remarkably, two of these clashes featured Trudeau finally asking, “Are you done?” and, remarkably, the lone protestor in each case answering, “I’m done.” When his fans boo or try to drown out the protestors, Trudeau admonishes them to stay polite.

His control of the atmosphere is what sticks, not the subjects raised. Consider it again in terms of energy levels. The protestor boils, Trudeau goes icy. This is even more evident when he’s faced, not with an irate loner, but a reasonable, disgruntled voice. At the first of this month’s town halls, in Lower Sackville, N.S., when he’s asked about the ethics commissioner finding him in violation of conflict of interest rules over his trip to the Aga Khan’s private island, Trudeau says the ruling proves “the system works.” Rebuked in London over his broken campaign promise on electoral reform, he says he decided not to press ahead merely to “tick off a box” from his platform.

The sense in these moments of direct accountability, not to the opposition or the press, but to the people, is potent. Yet there are no follow-up questions, so no sustained pressure. And it can’t be long until the next admiring question touching on his persona as the son of a famous prime minister, and father and husband of his own young, photogenic family. In Hamilton he’s asked, with reference to Pierre Trudeau’s legacy, what would he like his own to be? (Empower active, engaged citizens.) In London, what does he wish for his little daughter? (Not to face systemic sexism.)

Long lineups start the town halls and standing ovations close them. After of the Hamilton show, three second-year McMaster students, all women, burst out laughing when asked if the Trudeau magic of the 2015 campaign is wearing off at all. The question strikes them as absurd. “He’s still young!” explains one. They talk about his attention to women’s equality issues, his message on diversity. His handling of dissent impressed them, and they remark that President Donald Trump would have had protestors dragged out by security.

Not everyone is so satisfied. In London, Ariana Magliocco, a third-year student at Western University, asked a detailed question about First Nations concerns over Newfoundland & Labrador’s Muskrat Falls hydroelectric development. Trudeau answered with general points about the need to consult with Indigenous people. Asked about the exchange later, Magliocco is troubled. “I’ll applaud his positive rhetoric,” she says. “But I don’t want people walking away saying, ‘Wow, he said such great things! He’s so handsome!’ and thinking that’s enough.”