OPINION

This is Harper visited by the ghost of Gzowski

In the campaign’s early days, he’s been on his game in a way that’s impressive to watch

PAUL WELLS September 22 2008
OPINION

This is Harper visited by the ghost of Gzowski

In the campaign’s early days, he’s been on his game in a way that’s impressive to watch

PAUL WELLS September 22 2008

This is Harper visited by the ghost of Gzowski

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

In the campaign’s early days, he’s been on his game in a way that’s impressive to watch

Every weird campaign, Tolstoy might have said but didn’t, is weird in its own way. This one features the leaders of the two largest parties urging us to treasure their humanity. We thought we were getting policy wonks,

but instead we are having Sensitive Guys thrust upon us. (But only two. Everyone knows Jack Layton is sensitive. The public appetite for more details on this front is too small to be measured or to need appeasing. Small blessings.)

The Liberals have launched a website to get you up to speed on Stéphane Dion’s fondness for snowshoeing. Because that’s what you ask yourself every time it snows, isn’t it: how on earth is Stéphane Dion going to have any fun now? Meanwhile, Stephen Harper is flying across the country thanking people. Sunday morning, Ottawa: thanks to the voters who made him Prime Minister. Sunday afternoon, Quebec City: thanks, Quebecers, for putting up with his shaky French. Monday morning, Vancouver: thanks to families for their fecund loins. Monday night outside Regina: thanks to farmers for all the tilling and the reaping. Thank you one and all. Welcome to the 36-day Oscar speech.

There is something novel and, if you must know, charming about the Conservative leader’s sudden ebullience. In a spanking-new bam in Saskatchewan the other evening I started to wonder whether he had been inhabited by the ghost of Peter Gzowski (an uncomfortable haunting for them both, no doubt).

“Now let me just end with this, my friends. It has been an unbelievable experience, the experience of a lifetime, to be your Prime Minister,” he said. “You get to see this country in a way no one else gets to see it. You get to travel across the country, to see the true breadth of our country, you get to meet people in every corner and from every background in this great country. And you get to travel

the world. And you get to see other people and the situations they live in, and the difference and the advantages that we have here.

“When I come to Saskatchewan, even on a beautiful day like this, I never cease to be amazed. To look out and to think—especially as that cold wind whistles across the prairie in the wintertime-to think how tough the people who came here had it. To break the land and to build everything that we have today. How tough it must have been for the Aboriginal people before that, to live in that environment.

“But I also never forget this: there are very few places in the world where you can look out as far as the eye can see and see land that is rich, land you can grow things on, land you can build your families on, land that is full of potential. That’s what people see in this country when they come from every corner of the earth. They see opportunity as limitless as the horizon of Saskatchewan. That’s what we’re building here.”

There is, of course, strategic advantage being sought in these homilies that now burst, at intervals, from the mouth of this sometimes pinched and vinegary fellow. One of Harper’s staffers calls it “the Oprah-ization of Canadian politics,” the expectation that voters must know their leaders as people and not just as bearers of platforms. It is a feature of the landscape that Harper has decided he cannot beat. So he will join it. So too Dion, with his snowshoes and his tackle box.

I am more than a little upset at Harper for his cavalier dismissal of his own fixed election-date law, for justifying cuts to arts programs by portraying artists and their admirers as freaks, for coarsening the way business is done in Parliament, for the way you can sometimes actually see the wheels turn behind

his eyes as he calculates which excesses he can get away with: health-care wait times, income trust taxation, the promises bent to pretzels or finally discarded. But in the early days of this campaign he has been on his game in a way that is simply impressive to watch. Whatever else it is, politics is a craft. One consideration in sizing up a politician is whether he is any good at the technique of it. Harper has been a diligent student of the technique of politics. It shows.

His staff carries a sleek lectern with a water tray from event to event, and Harper is most dangerous—to his opponents, or sometimes just to journalists trying to pin him down— when he leans on that lectern, slouching unphotogenically, so caught up in the discussion he moves past talking points to argument.

In Winnipeg he unveiled a proposed cut to diesel taxes that was, from many angles of analysis, cockamamie. Yet it was a pleasure to watch him defend it. Was he encouraging fuel use? No, because it cannot be discour-

aged, he said. “The kinds of thing diesel is used for—which is primarily for commercial transportation—this has to be done. This has to be done. You know, my opponent says he wants to tax things that are bad. Heating your home: is that bad? Taking groceries to market: is that bad? Allowing airplane transportation, the shipping of goods across the continent and around the world. Business and passenger transportation. Are these bad things? No, these are essential things for the economy.”

I do not know or yearn to know whether Stephen Harper is comfortable on snowshoes. But he was born for the hustings. Nl

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells