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Cardboard Trudeau perfect symbol for government that can’t quite fall out of love with itself

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 6, 2017.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 6, 2017. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

For those who follow such things closely, Wednesday was apparently not a particularly good day for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons. He faced intense questioning over the ethics commissioner’s ongoing investigation into his Christmas vacation, and whether accepting a flight and stay on a private island of Ismali religious leader, the Aga Khan, a registered lobbyist, violated regulations. He dodged the questions, from both Conservative and NDP MPs, a total of 18 times.

David Akin, Global News’s chief political correspondent, was in the House and tweeted the whole incident.

“Wow. CPC/NDP teaming on the ethics commissioner question is making the prime minister look absolutely foolish this afternoon in #QP,” he said.

The questions eventually moved off the ethics investigation, but the prime minister continued to be evasive.

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“That’s why they call it Question Period; not Answer Period,” quipped Steven Chase of The Globe and Mail. Akin followed up later with this: “I can report from my perch in [the] #HOC that the Liberal backbench looks thrilled with PM’s performance this #QP. #Not”

So, not a great day for the prime minister in Question Period. But I doubt it’ll matter. Maybe it should, but while Question Period shenanigans are great for filling up newscasts, they don’t really resonate with voters, at least until a critical mass of popular frustration or disgust is reached.

WATCH: Trudeau responds to cardboard cut-outs of himself

Click to play video: 'Trudeau responds to cardboard cut-outs of himself' Trudeau responds to cardboard cut-outs of himself
Trudeau responds to cardboard cut-outs of himself – May 9, 2017

We seem nowhere near that. Most Canadians simply don’t pay attention that closely, and as my colleague Supriya Dwivedi noted after Wednesday’s theatrics, those Canadians who do pay attention to daily politics in the House mainly just see what they want to see reflected back.

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If you don’t like Trudeau, you see a prime minister on the defensive, dodging fair inquiries. If you like him, you see an honourable man patiently putting up with silly questions from an opposition set on ignoring the real issues facing Canadians. Your mileage very much varies.

WATCH: Trudeau commits to answering ethics commissioner’s questions regarding Aga Khan trip

Click to play video: 'PM Trudeau commits to answering ethics commissioner’s questions regarding Aga Khan trip' PM Trudeau commits to answering ethics commissioner’s questions regarding Aga Khan trip
PM Trudeau commits to answering ethics commissioner’s questions regarding Aga Khan trip – Apr 12, 2017

But something else happened in the House on Wednesday, and this, I suspect, may end up having a more long-term effect. Conservative MP Ben Lobb had recently filed a request with the Global Affairs ministry to determine how many cardboard cutouts of the prime minister had been ordered, and at what expense.

He’d asked the question after media and social media reports showed the odd cutouts of a smiling Justin Trudeau showing up at diplomatic or cultural events across the United States. Global Affairs had already ordered the kind of weird practice stopped, but hadn’t previously told us what it cost.

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We now have that answer: $1,877.24. That covered the cost of 14 cardboard Trudeaus, one wooden frame to prop up a cardboard PM, and related shipping and handling fees.

I don’t think this government has much to worry about on that front: Canadians might roll their eyes at almost $1,900 on a silly expense, but despite my previously expressed belief that Canadians are weirdly and unpleasantly cheap, this is too small beer to do real damage. But the rationale behind the cutouts, and what it tells us about this government’s priorities, is where the problem might lie.

And what is the rationale? The cutouts were, according to the Global Affairs documents, part of “re-engaging with the world to champion the values that Canadians hold dear.”

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau cardboard cut-outs were part of ‘championing Canadian values’ Freeland says

You know, I have a pretty open mind and a very active imagination, but I can’t for the life of me figure what a glossy image of Justin Trudeau says to the world about anything that Canada values. It seems instead more like a projection of the Liberals’ arrogance than it does any statement of principle.

Too often, to the Liberals, they are Canada’s values. It’s mostly just rhetorical laziness – a perfectly circular expression of the Liberals’ values being Canadian values, which are whatever the latest LPC policy confab deemed those to be – but it can at times betray a deeper arrogance. And that arrogance has brought them down before. In time, it will again.

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Because that’s the problem with arrogance. It blinds you to how others may perceive you. In the last election, the prime minister’s partisan opponents – the Tories, in particular – tried to portray Trudeau as an airhead, someone who wasn’t ready for the job. It didn’t work, but a revised take on that someday could.

A life-size cut-out of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau available for purchase online.
A life-size cut-out of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau available for purchase online. historicalcutouts.com

Don’t portray Trudeau as lazy or stupid – he’s clearly not, as Stephen Harper learned to his sorrow. Portray him instead as narcissistic, obsessed with himself, and too blinded by his own selfies to see the concerns facing ordinary Canadians. Canadians might just decide there’s truth in that.

I don’t think this is a quick path to power for either opposition party; both the prime minister himself and his party remain popular, polling shows. But this prime minister already has a bad habit of making himself the centre of every story. It’s already getting old. Even Canadians who like Trudeau, and would vote for him, won’t long tolerate the government offering up Justin Trudeau as Canada. He’s not. He’s just our prime minister, thanks to not quite 40 per cent of the last election’s popular vote.

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The cardboard cut-outs have gone away for now, at least until the Tories trot one out for an attack ad campaign (they write themselves, almost). But the Liberals’ arrogance and awe with their handsome leader aren’t as easy to dump in a closet to gather dust. The country is bigger and better than one party, and certainly one man.

Governments, and men, that forget that, in time, have a way of being unseated by voters prone to tire of ego far faster than they sour on scandal.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.

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