February 05, 2004

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Fantasies in our daily political news

Stephen Harper insists he is not beholden to anyone, implying, of course, that Prime Minister Martin is.

Few fantasies match the fodder of the daily news story and its straight-faced, accurately attributed quote. For sheer audacity there was, for example, Steven Harper's announcement of his candidacy for the Conservative Party of Canada. Reports in all the media, the National Post, Globe and Mail, and even the Vancouver Sun agreed: Harper, who resigned earlier this month as leader of the opposition, has chosen to run for Prime Minister on the George Bush presidential playbook.

The then official leader of the opposition told the nation on Jan 12 - I read it on the Jan 13 - that the national election starts now. He thus tied the next national election, over which he has no control, with his potential election as leader of the newly reconstituted Conservative Party. As bald if flatulent statements go, it was a courageous piece of puffery delivered and received, deadpan, in the news.

His audacity has gone almost unnoticed, and certainly unquestioned, in the flurry of interest that resulted when Belinda Stronach announced her candidacy for the new Conservative party. Harper noted that without her wealth, he had to raise money rather than spend it.

Whether enormous wealth is or should qualify a person for national leadership is open to question. That she has many of the qualities Harper insists are his, also - an outsider seeking a new national vision un-beholden to special interests - makes of their candidacies a single theme.

But as the man with a track record, the Alliance né Reform candidate for the new Conservative, Alliance-Reform party, Harper's statements deserve closer attention.

In the federal election Harper unilaterally called as he stepped down as official leader of the opposition, he said we should choose him and his reconstituted party rather than Prime Minister Paul Martin and the Liberals because, unlike Martin, Stephen Harper is not an insider. He's, well, a regular guy and is not a multi-millionaire. Harper insists he is not beholden to anyone, implying of course that Prime Minister Martin is.

This was the line, almost word-for-word, that served George W. Bush in his presidential debates with Vice-President Al Gore. The former Texas governor was, he insisted, an outsider campaigning for normal folk against the professional political interests of Washington. Bush represented not moneyed interests (oil, for example, the Texas staple) but average citizens.

Of course, the everyman Texan also had a family hearth in moneyed New England. His undergraduate degree was from Yale University (not Texas A&M) where he was a member of Skull and Bones, a secret society many say is the longest running influence game in the U.S. Nor could the former governor, a professional politician, really be considered an outsider. In office he dealt with national politics on a daily basis. He was friendly enough with the first President Bush's team to draft them wholesale for his administration.

This was not Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Still, the fiction played, as they say, as long as nobody thought about it too long or too hard.

For Stephen Harper to call himself an outsider, if true, is a stunning admission of frank incompetence. As the leader of the official opposition he was not simply a member of Parliament, but one of the members who run the game we call Canadian politics, the one that he says he is running to as an outsider. As such he endured lots of obligations, not the least of them, his oath of allegiance to Canada and its people as well as his obligations to the constituents that elected him.

Of course, as a Canadian politician he also was and is obliged to his party and its platform. That's the way we do it here.

The last relatively unencumbered politician I know of was Firello Laguardia, the New York mayoral candidate who, against all odds, beat the Tammany Hall machine. Fiorello was relatively without obligation because nobody believed he would win and his backing was minimal. The same cannot be said of Stephen Harper, of course, who has lots of people behind him, and thus lots of people whom he will be obliged to remember.

In fact, we want politicians who are obligated. We want them to represent the ideals of the party they lead, the constituents they represent, and more generally, the nation they serve. Loose cannons do not serve in the political battles Prime Ministers must fight in the world. So taking Harper at his word, who would ever vote for him?

Harper insists we should elect, or at least trust him over Paul Martin because he is less wealthy than the Prime Minister. Not that Harper is poor, of course. He earns a better salary (more than double) than I do. And, of course, he has all the perks of a Parliamentarian, including franking privileges (free postal services) and a swell expense account. If he loses his party's nomination, or his seat in the next election, he will not be a candidate for the 2005 reality series Average Joe.

Presumably we should vote for him rather than his wealthy adversary, Belinda, because she, like Martin, has more money than the Bank of Canada. Shame on her, and on Paul Martin, too.

It is unclear why I should trust his well-to-do-ness over Martin's admitted wealth or Stronach's multi-millions. Some of the best politicians in North American history were filthy rich. Think about Franklin Roosevelt, for example, or John Kennedy (and his brothers). Pierre Elliott Trudeau was certainly no pauper. One never worried about corruption among those folks because their families were individually richer than the U.S. mint.

Personally, I like rich prime ministers, presidents and ministers, especially those like Martin who had experience in the game. They may be incompetent, but at least they have no need to be venal.

Little guys who find themselves on the top of the heap and don't know what to do once they get there, inexperienced outsiders, are the folks who give us the greatest scandals. Rich folk who have a sense of social obligation (or guilt) and the political expertise to bring their vision forward lead best in the long-run, I say.

What perhaps is most interesting is why Stephen Harper thinks the George W. Bush playbook will sell here, in Canada. What is it that makes him believe we, too, will suspend reason and buy the fiction of the neophyte who goes to the nation's capital to fight established interests from whom they are divorced?

Perhaps the Martin gang is right and Stephen Harper seeks the Americanization of Canadian politics through the presentation of U.S.-style political fictions.

Certainly, his suggestion that his new party is not like the Liberals, does not need a public leadership campaign. That there is not time for the debate and dialogue is suspicious. In Canadian politics, especially with a new party conceived in anger and born in a sense of betrayal, a leadership debate would be a good thing. In Canada there is always time for the airing of difference.

Reporters may roll their eyes while taking down quotes, but a sufficiently prestigious candidate can say almost anything and be quoted accurately and without demur. Should anyone question the statement he will be told that either the quote is wrong, it is out of context, or the reporter is too stupid to have understood what the politician really meant.

This commentary is not an attack on the news and the way it is written. Nor should it be construed as an attack on Harper. The truth remains, however, that if I really wanted a less-than-wealthy little guy from nowhere, an outsider who could be Prime Minister, I'd vote for Jean Chretien.

Tom Koch is an adjunct professor of gerontology and a forum associate in the David Lam Centre for International Communications. His most recent book, The Wreck of the William Brown (Douglas & McIntyre), was published last fall.

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