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Exercising accountability and strategic public relations: the Trudeau Town halls

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a town hall in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia to kick off 2018. The town hall was the first in a series being held by Trudeau across the country, with a similar format to last year’s listening tour.

Throughout the evening, Nova Scotians proved they were not afraid to ask tough questions to the Prime Minister, who was asked about recent ethics violations, the government’s $10.5 million settlement with Omar Khadr, and the possible deportation of Abdoul Abdi, a former refugee who came to Nova Scotia as a child from Somalia. Other topics of conversation included the legalization of marijuana and the federal government’s role in supporting health care.

Speaking to marijuana policy, Trudeau stated he agreed with the concerns over the minimum age for the legal purchase of marijuana, calling the drug “problematic for the developing brain” and acknowledging a need to keep it away from young people. The Prime Minister expressed his government’s belief that if we treat marijuana as stringently as alcohol, it will be more difficult for underage Canadians to purchase the drug.

In Nova Scotia, healthcare has dominated headlines and was the focus of the 2017 provincial election. With 37,000 people on the wait list for a family doctor, the healthcare system has been under a lot of pressure.

Trudeau was asked about the development of a national autism strategy, increased mental health services, and access to experimental drugs for Canadians living with terminal illnesses. The Prime Minister shared that while healthcare delivery largely remains a provincial responsibility, the federal government can be doing more in terms of research, advocacy and support.

Much like Trudeau’s previous town halls, the series comes at a time when headlines have been less than favourable for the government. The news that the Prime Minister breached four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act, uncertainty about the future of NAFTA, and concerns about the government’s tax reform plan have led to widespread criticism from Canadians.

Over the last two years, Trudeau’s leadership style has emerged as being characterized by transparency and openness, traits that have proven to be valued by Canadians. The question and answer setting plays to Trudeau’s strengths, drawing large crowds and giving him the opportunity to share key messaging in response to the issues making headlines.

In Lower Sackville, Trudeau was able to use the charisma that helped secure a Liberal majority in 2015 to connect with the audience of 1,200 Nova Scotians. The presence of other local Members of Parliament in the audience demonstrated a united front, which added to the atmosphere in a province that was swept by the Liberal party in the last federal election.

With an election looming in October 2019, the Prime Minister will need to continue to reach out to supporters and respond to critics in order to position his party for a successful re-election campaign, where he will be matched in personability by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and have to face questions of fiscal responsibility from Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Unlike the last election, the Prime Minister will be challenged by fresh, young faces who have been making efforts to relate to Canadians on a Trudeau-like level.

The response to the Prime Minister’s town hall series will be a good indication of Trudeaumania levels across the country. If the town halls are seen as being a method of accountability and Trudeau is able to head back to Ottawa with strong public support despite the challenges seen in late 2017, the government will be in a good place when Parliament resumes on January 29.

While we are less than a month into 2018, it is already shaping up to be a very interesting year in Canadian politics.