National AffairsPolitics

The art of not answering questions

By Andrew Philips

The scene: A suburban kitchen, circa 1987.
“Petey, what happened to that box of cookies I bought yesterday? Did you eat them?
“Who are you? Are you from the CBC?”
“Petey, I’m your mother. Did you eat the cookies?
“That’s a distraction from the real issues. I have a common sense plan for this household. Cut the homework, raise the allowance, more TV time.”
“Petey, what are you talking about? You’re eight years old. Did you eat the cookies?”
“Cut the homework, raise the allowance, more TV time.”
“Petey, did you eat the cookies?”
“Cookies are for people over 18 who can make choices about their lives.”
“Petey, I’m worried about you.”

People who aren’t terribly familiar with politics might think that one of the essential skills of a politician is being able to answer questions about a whole range of complicated issues, especially when they’re coming thick and fast from a skeptical or even hostile news media.
But that’s not it at all. The essential skill of a successful politician is not answering those questions. Or more precisely, answering only the questions you’d like to be asked while ducking the ones you know will get you in trouble.
The trick is to do it artfully, so the audience hardly even notices what’s happening. And to keep smiling while the media try every gambit they know to make you answer those pesky unanswerable questions.
This is a game as old as politics itself. Politicians from the dawn of time have been changing the subject when they get a question they don’t like (“Thanks for the question. What Athenians are really concerned about is …” something else entirely.)
There’s even a cottage industry of “media training,” often run by ex-journalists steeped in the tricks of their craft, designed specifically to equip politicians, business executives and the like to “stay on message.” I.e. to not answer questions.
In Britain, a political psychologist named Peter Bull made a special study of the peculiar skill of not answering. In his research he identified no fewer than 35 ways politicians evade a direct question and rated them on how often they managed to do it (former PM Theresa May was a champ, he found).
Which brings us to a couple of politicians who faced difficult questions this week with varying success.
First, Pierre Poilievre. It’s worth rewatching the media scrum he found himself in this week on Parliament Hill as reporters tried to get him to say whether he supports Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s sweeping gender policies.
Poilievre attempted to blame his favourite punching bag (“Justin Trudeau is trying to divide and distract Canadians”). He gave vague answers (“I think we should protect the rights of parents”). But you could see he was struggling to keep his composure as he was peppered with aggressive questions.
Finally, he wilted under the pressure and coughed up an actual answer – he opposes puberty blockers for those under 18. Sure enough, that’s what made the headlines and set him up for exactly the kind of attacks he was trying to avoid.
For example, does he even understand the issue? What use are puberty blockers for someone who’s already gone through puberty?
That was a clear fail but let’s now consider how another Conservative politician, Doug Ford, handled the same question.
The premier was clearly ready for that and gave an actual answer – “No. We have a law here; we’re leaving everything alone.”
But look at what followed. By my count Ford spent exactly four seconds on that answer, which he practically mumbled under his breath. Then he switched the subject entirely by congratulating the Globe and Mail for a story about how Ontario is beating China on electric vehicles. It turned out the reporter who wrote the story was present, so the premier spent a full minute happily talking about EVs and Ontario industry.
From gender politics to electric vehicles in four seconds flat. From potential minefield to smiles all round. Doug Ford, you get this week’s gold star in the art of political redirection.


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