Harper proving weak on governance, even weaker on courage
By Michael Harris | May 24,
More from Michael Harris available here.And so Canadian public life has come down to an empty chair.
JFK’s unoccupied rocking chair following his assassination meant the end of Camelot. When imprisoned human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, it was placed on an empty chair reserved for Liu. But what does Stephen Harper’s empty chair mean at the consortium-organized television debates for Election 2015, particularly when it’s empty by choice?
Empty is a word devoid of cheer. Empty is an adjective of despair. Empty means all options are closed.
And that is the true meaning of Harper’s decision to boycott the traditional television debates. He has finally delivered the perfect metaphor for his notion of accountability and leadership: an empty chair.
Canada’s national political conversation has been emptied out by a sitting prime minister who is contemptuous of anything he can’t control. He believes that he can pay his way to re-election through the black magic of marketing and the usual bribing of the electorate with taxpayers’ money. There is nothing left but Harper’s cynicism — and his personal conviction that Canadians don’t want to talk about government anymore.
Democracy-fatigue is his best friend. Who knows? Maybe Canadians are tired of paying attention. Personally, I don’t think they are.
When you think about it, Harper has never really wanted to talk with anyone other than the country’s corporate elites — and then really only a few resource peddlers. He talks at the rest.
He doesn’t answer the Opposition in Parliament. Harper has never convened a first minister’s meeting where the premiers as a group could talk with him about the state of the country. Instead he talks down to them, if he talks to them at all.
Harper didn’t want to talk with Chief Theresa Spence about tangible ways to improve the lives of First Nations people some time before there is a human colony on Mars. He doesn’t talk with organized labour about anything. He has more interaction with cats and chinchillas than journalists.
He didn’t want to talk with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — even though all Beverley McLachlin seemed to want to do was save him from what became a constitutional embarrassment for the PMO and Harper’s hapless court nominee, Marc Nadon.
When he wrote the cheques to provincial health ministers back in the Flaherty days, there was no negotiation, just a take-it-or-leave it proposition — accept the cash and the slash.
In Harper’s dream scenario, the consortium’s English language debate would turn into an exercise in progressive-on-progressive cannibalism, with Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau and Elizabeth May eating each other alive…
Government by fiat is what it is.
Even Harper’s messenger on the democracy-killing decision to skip the real debate on network television in front of millions of people was a empty vessel. Kory Teneycke’s judgments on journalistic issues don’t matter in the slightest. He is little more than an attack-trained ethanol lobbyist turned politico, not the second coming of Walter Cronkite. He is – and always has been – what people inside the Ottawa bubble call “a flack.”
And guys like Bob Fife over at CTV aren’t losing too much sleep about not making Kory’s cut in those five debates the Tories will do. Indeed, having Teneycke judge the networks on the issue of the debates is like having Vladimir Putin handing out the Nobel Peace Prize — travesty in hot pursuit of farce.
Teneycke’s rabid right-winginess already drove one television “news” service into the ground when he tried his hand at a job that was not drawing on the public purse. By the time this PM’s henchman was done playing newsman, the three-year-old Sun TV was as marketable as Ben Johnson after the drug test.
While it was in business, Sun TV was Harper’s favourite non-American television station. No wonder. It was a cut-rate Conservative Party marketing machine — a sort of shopping channel for rightist politics that tricked out the news in Tory bling. And it was all paid for by Pierre-Karl Péladeau and the shareholders of Quebecor.
Voters aren’t fooled by the bogus talk of more debates and reaching out to other “new media” outlets. Why can’t they just be honest? This is about reducing the size of the audience, reducing the risks and consequences of a blunder, and marginalizing his opposition.
In hockey, when you’re trying to protect a tenuous lead, it’s called “ragging the puck.”
Harper’s minions have sought out ways to ensure the debate process goes his way. That will be crystal clear when the dates and the precise formats of the five “debates” Harper accepts become public. Two that we know of are already dubious: reduced to one-issue forums on the economy and foreign policy in government-friendly territory.
The TV network consortium, CTV, CBC, Global and TVA, dwarf both Maclean’s and the Globe & Mail in terms of sheer audience. But with occasional exceptions, both the news magazine — which hasn’t laid a glove on the PM for years — and the self-styled national newspaper — which endorsed him in the 2011 election — have resolved most doubts in favour of the Harper regime.
So it doesn’t matter to the PM that they have a lot smaller audiences than the major networks in the consortium. What they do have on offer is a near certainty of softball questions and much less exposure in the event the PM still manages to make a mess of things — just like former Alberta premier Jim Prentice managed to do a week before the election.
Harper might even think he has died and gone to heaven at the Munk debate on foreign policy, so cozy has his government’s relationship been with the Munk family and Barrick Gold. Perhaps that’s why Gerald Butts, Justin Trudeau’s trusted advisor, asked acerbically on Twitter whether John Baird would be moderating the event.
The prime minister has probably factored in the impact of his absence at the consortium television debates on his opponents and seen an advantage.
In Harper’s dream scenario, the consortium’s English language debate would turn into an exercise in progressive-on-progressive cannibalism, with Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau and Elizabeth May eating each other alive, if only because their natural target, the PM, is not there.
There is also the question of public engagement. Who would go to a boxing match if one of the heavyweights in the main event announced he wasn’t climbing in the ring?
Harper might be able to spin the 2015 election process into a vast electronic cattle-drive. That, after all, is what he has done with governance in Canada. But avoiding the huge audiences of the TV debates being staged by Canada’s major broadcasters can also be viewed as chickening out on the rumble.
At least Patrick Brazeau climbed into the ring with Justin Trudeau. Perhaps Harper has figured out what Brazeau never did – that underestimating your opponent can make you look weak. At the same time, hiding away from the electorate is no place to be for a man who keeps telling everyone he’s a leader. Then again, Harper is no stranger to hiding from things.
Michael Harris is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws for his “unceasing pursuit of justice for the less fortunate among us.” His nine books include Justice Denied, Unholy Orders, Rare ambition, Lament for an Ocean, and Con Game. His work has sparked four commissions of inquiry, and three of his books have been made into movies. His new book on the Harper majority government, Party of One, is a number one best-seller.
Readers can reach the author at [email protected]
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