Ottawa Citizen

Trudeau spins around the real stories

Response on quantum computing charming, but obscures larger issue

- MADELINE ASHBY Madeline Ashby is a strategic foresight consultant and novelist living in Toronto. Find her at madelineas­ or on Twitter @MadelineAs­hby.

Here’s a rule, for life as well as press conference­s: don’t take the bait.

The unfolding drama of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s remarks at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretica­l Physics in Waterloo has caused everything from crushed crushes to accusation­s of the North Koreanific­ation of Canadian journalism. These reactions are ridiculous­ly overblown.

Did the prime minister set up his answer? Yes. Of course he did. That’s what politician­s do. He had just been educated by some incredibly bright people about quantum computing, and he wanted to answer questions about it, probably in part to justify the $50 million in funding the government has promised to the Perimeter Institute over a five-year period. Yes, it was spin. And yes, it was good spin. In fact, it was masterful spin — the kind of set-’emup-and-knock-’em-down that Pierre Elliott “Just watch me” Trudeau would have been proud of.

Because here’s what happened. He said “I’m really hoping people ask me how quantum computing works because I was excited to deepen knowledge of that this morning.” And then a reporter said: “I was going to ask you to explain quantum computing, but…” And then proceeded to ask a question about Canada’s role in the fight against ISIL.

When you give a charming person an opportunit­y to be even more charming — to demonstrat­e knowledge, to talk about an investment in an emerging technology economy — don’t be surprised when they take it. Asking about the fight against ISIL is a reasonable, relevant question. ISIL is an anarchic organizati­on directly opposed to freedom and progress of all sorts. Asking about how the prime minister expects to commit Canadian resources — time, money, human power — is exactly what journalist­s should do.

But taking such obvious bait doesn’t do any one in the room any favours — aside from the person who laid that bait. In the video of the interactio­n, gales of laughter follow the initial question.

That’s not the “North Koreanific­ation” of Canadian journalism. North Korean journalist­s aren’t, to my knowledge, allowed to have much in the way of a sense of humour. But telling a joke to a funny person always means taking the risk that they’ll tell a much better one. The question was an obvious risk.

In many ways, this was the perfect social media story. On Friday, traditiona­lly a slow day in the news cycle where publicity reps go to bury the things they don’t want covered, the answer generated a bunch of clicks. And on Monday, at the top of the cycle, it generated even more when the answer was seen as “staged.” The story got us coming and going. As clickbait goes, it’s excellent.

And Trudeau is probably Canada’s first social media savvy leader. Goodness knows the other candidates the Liberals have fielded over the years didn’t know how to do this part of the job. And neither the Conservati­ves nor the NDP fared much better. Even Jack Layton, a far more fiery and outspoken presence than the current prime minister, didn’t generate this kind of attention abroad and on the Internet.

It’s that story which has obscured a much larger one: the story about the Perimeter Institute itself, and the “Quantum Valley,” and the “tech corridor” that’s developing between Toronto and Waterloo. In a struggling economy, and against a landscape wherein science has real power to help us live longer, better lives, that’s not a small story.

While the American media wonders if their latest crush is an airhead, and Canadian media ponders the loss of their soul, the news is actually happening.

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