When a Prime Minister scrums (Or: why democracy isn’t dead)

Paul Wells on the varied goals of scrumming reporters, and why Justin Trudeau’s much-discussed quantum clip made some people furious

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an announcement at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, April 15, 2016. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an announcement at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, April 15, 2016. (Nathan Denette/CP)

By mid-September 2008, the federal election was not going as Stephen Harper had hoped. The travelling press pack had cornered the Conservative prime minister in a Winnipeg vegetable warehouse. The day’s announcement was about a Conservative promise to cut diesel fuel taxes. The contrast with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion—the Liberals would make it more expensive to drive a truck, Harper would make it cheaper—was strong and clear. I had a tough question about Harper’s own climate plans. His answer was revealing.

Then the local City TV guy asked Harper which vegetable he would like to be, given the choice. The Conservative leader grinned, mumbled, looked down sheepishly, surveyed the vegetables behind him for an idea, and finally offered that he’d prefer to be a fruit, because then he could continue to be “sweet and colourful.”

This was not precisely like the moment the other day in Waterloo, Ont., when Justin Trudeau seized on a chance to display a basic understanding of quantum computing. Harper, at least, was taken by surprise. As JJ McCullough has since pointed out, Trudeau had announced to the scribes that he was hoping for a question about quantum computing, and the CP reporter quizzing him, Colin Perkel, had mentioned quantum only in passing, on his way to a Serious Question about Terrorism. Trudeau jumped on the question Perkel hadn’t really asked with evident glee, delivering a prepared but broadly accurate cereal-box summary of the basics of quantum computing. JJ sees this as evidence that democracy has died in Canada and the dogs of the press corps were spotted near the corpse; his depiction of a monolithically complacent media party is helped along by his cheerful willingness to ignore the Canadian Press report from Perkel himself, which described everything precisely as McCullough saw it.

But the issue isn’t only whether a question is set up. It is that, whenever a reporter doesn’t take a chance to force a politician into an embarrassing contradiction, that reporter is, beyond contradiction, making it a little easier for the politician to get through his day. Perkel’s real question, about the so-called Islamic State, is a matter of public record, as is the answer Trudeau eventually gave. But I can’t tell you what either the question or the answer was, because all I’ve heard out of Friday’s scrum was the wiffle ball on quantum computing. Trudeau’s entourage was not unhappy about this turn of events.

Whenever the confrontation between politicians and reporters takes a detour into colourful anecdote, there is always a part of the audience that perceives a missed opportunity to take that bastard down. At that Winnipeg vegetable warehouse in 2008, Harper was making an important contribution to his highest strategic imperative in that campaign, which was to focus attention on the dollar cost to consumers of Stéphane Dion’s environmental policies. Harper’s policy edifice was rickety at best (the day’s diesel-fuel promise would be the most expensive he made in that campaign, it made no sense at all, and after re-election he never lifted a finger to implement it). To anyone watching, and hoping he’d be taken down a peg, a goofy question about grocery-story produce must have been excruciating to watch. And of course you know Harper’s aw-shucks answer was on every newscast that night. So Harper won the day.

That was in 2008, when Harper had only been prime minister for 2½ years. By 2015 the tension was way higher. Joining Harper’s tour for several days just before Labour Day, I managed to put two questions to him in scrums, once in Vancouver and once in Whitehorse. The first time, I parroted the Liberal and NDP lines on deficits to him and invited him to tear their arguments apart like a Doberman, which he promptly did. On my second turn at the microphone, I began by reminding Harper that this was my fifth time covering him in a national election campaign. He replied with some memories of his own, and there were a few seconds of banter back and forth. It was, inevitably, a humanizing moment for a PM who had not often lately seemed very human.

Such events are now routinely carried live on various Internet platforms. Both times I walked away from the microphone to find Twitter exploding with variations on, “My God, there’s Wells chatting with his buddy WHEN WILL THE MEDIA STOP PROPPING THIS GUY UP.”

Perhaps, on such occasions, everyone could take a few minutes to breathe through the nose. Reporters at scrums are chasing a few different objectives, almost never in co-ordinated fashion.

Some are hoping to catch a party leader in a contradiction or to force him to admit some situation is far worse than he has ever admitted before. These are the questions that begin with “Aren’t you…” or “Isn’t it…” Or “Why don’t…”

Some have been working on an obscure story, ignored by colleagues, and it is now time to get the leader’s comment. Their questions will seem annoying but they will probably have many colleagues following them soon enough.

Some reporters are simply desperate for the leader to say something fresh on a subject that hasn’t been done to death. Others have discovered that this week the only way to get any play for their stories is to pile onto a subject that has been done to death, even at the risk of doing it some more.

Some are local reporters for whom nothing a leader says can be as interesting as the mere fact of his presence in their community. They are likely to ask questions about vegetables or superheroes. (It is important not to generalize. Other local reporters will sometimes send a line drive right into the leader’s solar plexus, on shipping routes or grain prices or police budgets.)

But on any given day, a scrum will probably not reduce a political leader to a quivering, weeping ruin of exposed incompetence, and to the extent that it doesn’t deliver that result, it will frustrate viewers who were hoping for it.

On the subject at hand, I do not believe anyone watching Trudeau’s scrum could reasonably conclude he is a leading thinker in the field of quantum physics. I do not believe our coverage would encourage that belief. (Full disclosure: My wife, Lisa Samson of StrategyCorp, counts the Institute for Quantum Computing among her clients. She had nothing to do with our coverage of Trudeau’s visit.) He seemed to me like a guy who’d been briefed on the basics of the field, and had taken care to memorize the briefing, perhaps especially because it offered the chance to rebut the widespread notion that Justin Trudeau is a fool.

Good for him that he takes a briefing. In 2005, speaking at the opening of the then-new Perimeter Institute building, Paul Martin waxed rhapsodic about the importance of scientific discovery while joking that he had no idea what Perimeter’s researchers were talking about. I always wished he had taken 20 minutes to get an idea. Trudeau studied for a few years after 2002 at Montreal’s École polytechnique, where quantum mechanics is today the subject of an undergraduate course, though he notes in his memoir that he dropped out after a couple of years, calling engineering “an intellectual indulgence.” Perhaps some of it took, despite everything.

I suspect Harry Truman didn’t know much about nuclear fission, or George W. Bush about the grammatical nuances of Pashto, when they made crucial decisions on subjects with important technical dimensions. I do not even buy the notion that such decisions are improved by having a full-time “science adviser.” I do know that, every time we take a light-hearted angle on any politician’s meeting with the press, some in our audience will mourn our culpable refusal to end that politician’s career right then and there.

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