THUNDER BAY, ON ---- September 12, 2010 ----- Its never a good thing watching someone lose their touch in public. One moment, or many moments, you’re Big Johnny Swagger able to make victory appear with a point of your finger; the next, you’re Brian Mulroney. Or Tiger Woods for that matter. This isn’t just a political thing.
I used to like using the ‘jump the shark’ phrase until everybody and their Aunt Mabel started using it and it became like 57 year old white guys with beer guts saying ‘word.’ But jump the shark was a good one while it lasted and deserves a one-time revival.
I am seriously starting to wonder if Stephen Harper has jumped the shark. Granted, I would be delighted if that proved in the affirmative. Equally though, there are all the signs of a politician who has been locked in the bubble too long and has lost his mojo, his karma, his ability to bend minds in order to obey his commands. Or in Tiger Woods’ case, reading eight foot putts. It’s the same thing. Doubt - doubt starts to enter the mind - and doubt is the dark child of fear and the loss of instinct.
It can come early or late in the career. Sometimes it may not even be your fault. Take John Turner for example. He was the Toronto Maple Leafs to Pierre Trudeau’s Montreal Canadiens when they both popped up in Lester Pearson’s last Cabinet. Trudeau’s star burnt brighter, quicker; yet Turner made a good run of it at the 1968 Liberal Convention that elected Trudeau. Surely, it was felt, his time would come.
It did. In 1984. Turner’s time had come but his era had passed. If Turner had been the road company version of a show called Kennedy, re-worked to fit a Canadian audience, the last Kennedy had run for the Presidency four years before and lost.
Mulroney, who trounced Turner in the greatest landslide in Canadian electoral history, was the perfect man for the mid-1980s. He smacked of New Money and the years dominated by Reagan and Thatcher was full of it. Dallas and Dynasty - let’s make it rich baby. then of course it came time to pay the bills for all this nonsense and in came Jean Chretien with Paul Martin to tight the economic ship in an election that reduced a majority Progressive Conservative government tio two seats. As you look back on it, that truly was stunning. The Tories were not only neither loved nor admired - their MPs weren’t even liked. There was not even a, ‘They’re a bunch of bastards but Charlie’s OK.’ Utter destruction.
I am starting to think that Harper’s era is passing and that the Prime Minister knows it. There are the signs of failing government that have existed since the dawn of the 20th century and the mass media era. Tightening of government secrecy. Control concentrated in the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office), a sudden push for a policy issue that is a pleasing and surprising sidebar that surely will change the public’s view.
Regarding the last, I’m reminded of things like Bush the Younger’s staunch and well-funded stance on AIDS in Africa, Trudeau travelling the world pressing for nuclear disarmament, or Paul Martin with economic development for native youth. Harper has taken a strong public stance on Northern sovereignty. It is admirable. But I think it may also be the signing of the will, a last attempt at leaving an honourable legacy.
The time of Harper - the time of Harper has been an accidental time to begin with. Paul Martin may have lacked focus, but there was no good economic or foreign policy reason to remove him - save for one’s opinion of the Afghanistan War and Canada’s involvement in it. The Sponsorship Scandal, as sleazy as it definitely was, was pretty clearly an outcome of Team Chretien, and not Team Martin. People were tired of it all, so it was time to send the Liberals to their corner for a timeout.
In that corner, however, the Liberals found the cabinet where Daddy keeps his liquor and in a fit of drunken madness elected Stephane Dion as their leader. That too only occurred because Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae fought like two old cheerleaders at a sorority reunion and neither could bear the other to be elected Alumni Prom Queen. And I do apologize for the overt sexism on the preceding metaphor, but I like the image so I’m keeping it.
So it’s not as though the public have ever truly been all googoo over Harper to begin with. He was there, he was plausible, he’ll do. Do you actually know anyone - seriously anyone - who walks around saying Harper is the greatest Prime Minister, like, ever dude? (And yes, I’m using the middle-aged white guy version of urban youth speak to make sure that absolutely no one has ever said precisely that.)
But if there was a time of Harper, what was it and why do I insist on putting it in the past tense? I believe it was the end of a longer era - that of the 1990s and solid economic health that had its mirror cracked from side to side by 9-11, crazed banking and financial crisis. Outside of crisis, this is where things would have logically sat, with a solid and stolid caretaker government. A St. Laurent ers redux. We wanted management over imagination.
I suspect that Canadians are aware that Things Are Not Right. One thing about a nation that has a keen sense of the weather and how it can quickly change is that I do believe that Canadians are running ahead of Ottawa in terms of a willingness to accept whatever it takes to hold the line on climate change (we can’t fix it - subject for a future column - but we can’t fix it). Similarly, I also believe that Canadians are ahead of Ottawa in sensing that the Western economic structure might crater any given Wednesday and there does not seem to be a level of activity or focus within the government that indicates there is crisis planning going on.
We’re scared about the future. We’d like to think our politicians were too.
And scared is all right. Politicians all too often go for the ‘calming voice’. Let’s sing together: Ohmmmmmmm. Frankly, if my elected representative admits that he’s scared into staining his St. Laurent, at least I know he’s going to be working mightily on the problem.
Tightened security and secrecy equally plays against public faith in a time of fear. The problem of any secret from Degrassi High up to the PMO is that people always think the secret is hotter/juicier/scarier than the reality really is. So not knowing the truth makes the public believe that the story which is withheld is even more horrifying than our worst fears. Not a real good recipe for trust.
But - will anyone capitalize? Can Harper re-shape a government in the nine months or so before the next Federal election? How’s this heavy re-work of Iggy into small-town Chretien (but with degrees!) going to play long-term? Who is going to see the growing new wave of public desire and going surfing like the Beach Boys? Stay tuned and ... be seeing you.
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