Opinion Column

Political gaffes play into public's preconceptions

By Steve Burgess

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took part in WE Day Canada on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sunday, July 2, 2017. (Ashley Fraser/Postmedia Network)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took part in WE Day Canada on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sunday, July 2, 2017. (Ashley Fraser/Postmedia Network)

Government is complicated. Politics is simple. Voters might not understand all the implications of a free trade agreement or a constitutional issue. But they get it when a politician says "Let them eat cake." Or forgets their name.

At Canada Day celebrations last weekend Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood on a stage and listed off the provinces and territories as he wished one and all a happy Canada Day. Alas, he forgot Alberta. Ouch. He could have forgotten Ontario and a lot of people probably would have cheered. But Alberta? Alberta, where calling someone a Trudeau was once enough to start a barroom brawl? Where the Trudeau name only recently began polling higher than smallpox? It was like telling Donald Trump, “Say, those are some tiny hands you've got there.”

Then there was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. After a budget showdown Christie forced all state-run beaches to be shut down last weekend. Then he and his family were photographed enjoying themselves on one of the empty beaches. The New Jersey budget battle has been quite complicated. Nobody cares. You can't take an aerial photograph of a budget dispute. You can't make a budget dispute look like the King of France and Marie Antoinette on a beach holiday.

Gaffes don't catch fire unless they play into the public's preconceptions. Alberta already feels disrespected by Trudeau; Governor Christie was already perceived as arrogant. When Christy Clark snubbed a discontented voter on the campaign trail it resonated; when John Horgan seemed angry during debates it fed into an image. Sarah Palin never actually said "I can see Russia from my house" but it didn't matter. She could have. It's not always fair but if you want fairness you should become an Olympic sprinter.

As for Trudeau, he is off to Europe this week. He will be attending the G20 summit that will also be attended by Donald Trump and Angela Merkel. The American president and the German chancellor are about as friendly as your cat and your veterinarian. For Trudeau, standing between them will be comparable to dressing up like a squirrel and strolling down to the dog park. And yet for Trudeau it must have seemed like the safest option. After all, if he had stayed in the country this week people would probably have expected him to go to the Calgary Stampede.