A persecution complex as deep as the Pacific can only take a prime minister so far. Tuesday’s National Post featured Stephen Harper taking questions from the latest in a succession of handpicked, kid-glove-sporting interviewers (“Do you regard Mr. Charest’s re-election as being in the interest of the country?”). Yet the first words out of the Prime Minister’s mouth were about the hounds that beset him. “I prefer to talk about our success,” he said. “I have the entire press gallery to talk about my disappointments.” That’s right, Chief. We’re so mean.
After a while, though, even this hermetically wrapped Prime Minister gets tired of knowing—knowing to the very core of his being, I mean—how brilliant his plans are, and having nobody to explain it to. So on Feb. 6, only four days after Groundhog Day, Harper ventured out of his hole, eyes blinking, to a ballroom at the Château Laurier. I couldn’t tell whether he spotted his own shadow. But he was mightily spooked by the shadows of the Liberals, who want, he warned, “a country where the streets are ruled by guns, gangs and drugs.” Revealed at last: Stéphane Dion’s secret fourth pillar.
Fortunately the parliamentary play of odds and interests seems likely to spare Harper, and the rest of us, from the Liberals and their drug hordes for a while yet. Canada’s New Government™ will continue for quite a bit longer than six more weeks.
Which meant Harper’s lunchtime speech to the Canadian Club was, functionally, a kind of Throne Speech. By reading it himself, Harper kept the current Parliament alive, saved all the bills before it from dying on the order paper, and deprived Michaëlle Jean of anything to do, which is another of his odd hobbies. But the speech had substance. It dropped serious hints about the government’s direction for the next half-year, a considerable exertion for a man who does not like anyone in the morning to know what he will be doing in the evening.
There are five new priorities. Two are returning favourites from last season: further tax cuts and continued steps to tackle crime. Two kind of snuck into the hit parade during Harper’s first year in power, a mix of circumstance and predilection: a stronger role for Canada in the world and a “stronger federation,” through Senate reform and repairs to the imaginary fiscal imbalance. The fifth priority, of course, is to save the world from global warming. Or at least to make damned sure that every Canadian understands the Liberals failed to save the world from global warming.
In what must have been a first for the august cloisters of the Canadian Club, the Prime Minister brought slide-mounted charts and graphs, which his staff projected onto two big screens on either side of the dais while he spoke. The slides revealed little— or more precisely, nothing—about the Con-
servatives’ plans for the environment, and much about the Liberals’ failure to get any traction on the file while they were busy handing the streets over to the guns, gangs and drugs.
The PM got tired of knowing how brilliant he is, and having no one to explain it to
One slide was particularly eloquent. It showed that on per-capita emissions of sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, the only country that did worse than Canada in 2002 was Australia. At that point Australia had been governed for half a decade by Harper’s friend and mentor John Howard. Whoopsie.
Harper is spending part of his time these days trying to have an honest conversation with Canadians about global warming. “The fundamental challenge of our time is to make real progress on environmental protection while preserving jobs and standards of living,” he said. “A concerted global effort to deal with climate change... must include the major emitters, including the United States and China.” Note that “must.” Harper spent a decade arguing that because Kyoto didn’t include the United States and China, it was economic suicide for Canada to do anything about greenhouse gases whatsoever. Has he changed his mind, given the way that “must” juts out? Given the current temperament of those journalists who are permitted to sit with him, it will be about 147 years before anyone gets around to asking.
Other parts of the speech were less maddening, more tantalizing. Some of you were patient enough to put up with me a few months ago when I argued here that Canada is barely beginning to open up its Pacific port infrastructure as fast as the money comes over from Asia on boats. Now here was Harper promising “Canada’s longest period of guaranteed infrastructure and gateway commit-
ments in over a half-century.”
On Afghanistan, another intriguing hint. He promised a report on the mission in Parliament within weeks, and “a significant announcement about the next steps we will be taking in reconstruction.” There’s his flexibility again. When the Liberals and NDP demanded that the Afghan mission be “rebalanced,” he was furious—“What the hell does that mean?” Now he seems to have figured it out. Except when he furiously demands applause, he remains a fascinating prime minister to watch. M
ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells
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