Monday, August 25, 2008

The Music Man

In Meredith Willson's perennially popular musical comedy, The Music Man, a slick con man -- who calls himself Professor Harold Hill -- travels the country selling musical instruments to simple, good hearted folks. He promises he will set up youth bands in every town he visits; but, of course, once the instruments arrive and he collects his money, he skips town -- leaving his victims in a cacophony of confusion, ignorance and noise. For, in truth, Professor Hill is a phony. His success rests in knowing when to leave before the storm hits.

Stephen Harper -- Toronto-born, but with his feet now firmly planted on the prairies -- can spot a snowstorm long before it hits. And, as his former colleague and nemesis Garth Turner has written in his blog, the coming storm is going to be a real blizzard: "There are fewer true barometers of how an economy is doing than jobs, houses or the stock market. . . . Last Friday came news that 55,000 jobs were lost last month, leading a senior economist at BMO to say the economy is 'flat on its back.' . . . .Monday came more bad news about real estate. . . . Not only are resale numbers crashing and the national housing price falling for the first time in 17 years, but the pace of new home construction is cooling fast. Annualized national starts, economists said, would be 210,000 in July. Instead they were 186,500." As for the stock market, "at just over 13,000, the TSX is off 2,000 points from its 52 week high -- and that was just one month ago."

But, unlike Harold Hill, Mr. Harper does not intend to leave town. In true Canadian fashion he wants to build an igloo, in the form of a majority government, and ride out the storm -- even as the less fortunate freeze along the fence lines. He is prepared to break his own pledge of having fixed election dates, if it will help him find shelter. Thus, he claims that Parliament has become "dysfunctional" and it is time to send it to oblivion.

But, as Lawrence Martin wrote in The Globe and Mail on August 16th, the Tories have long had a plan to make a shambles of government. "Last year," he wrote, "the governing Conservatives prepared a secret handbook on how to disrupt parliamentary committees and create chaos. No mere pamphlet, the book ran to 200 pages." The problem was the plan was supposed to stay within the confines of the Conservative caucus. Someone had the audacity to leak it. We have witnessed that plan in action recently, as Tory campaign strategist Doug Finlay showed up two days early before the House Ethics Committee, insisting he be heard on his own terms, only to be escorted by security gaurds -- while Finlay protested loudly -- out of the room. Next came reports that other government witnesses had been instructed not to appear before the committee.

As Thomas Frank makes clear in his new book, The Wrecking Crew, neo-conservatives have not arrived at this place by accident. "They have wrecked established federal operations," Frank writes, "because they disagree with them, and they have deliberately piled up an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis. The ruination they have wrought has been thorough; it has been a professional job." Americans are facing the consequences of that debacle as they choose their next president. In Ontario, we faced those consequences six years ago when voters tossed out the Harris government -- a government which was populated by Harper's retreaded ministers Jim Flaherty, John Baird and Tony Clement.

Americans and Ontarians know how this story ends. And so does Preston Manning. In his book, Think Big, Manning writes of his souring relationship with his young protege. Harper consistently put his own interests ahead of his party -- and he left when he couldn't get his way. Harper was no man of the people: ". . . he had serious reservations about Reform's and my belief in the value of grassroots consultation and participation in key decisions." But Manning's most important insight into Harper's personality is contained on page 74 of that book: "Stephen had difficulty accepting that there might be a few other people (not many, perhaps, but a few) who were as smart as he was with respect to policy and strategy."

And, once again, frustrated that he can't get his way -- true democracy has been set up to frustrate the desires of those who insist that they are the smartest guys in the room -- Mr. Harper claims that it is his responsibility to save the country from the fools in the opposition parties. If Canadians give him his majority, they will experience what Americans and Ontarians have already experienced. In The Music Man, Harold Hill is saved by the ministrations of a good hearted librarian. Mr. Harper appears to be beyond redemption. An early member of the Reform Party, he has proved to be beyond Reform. One hopes the country can move beyond Mr. Harper.


Melissa Rhodes Gray said...

Wasn't it Harper who wanted fixed election dates? Now he says it is the Prime Minister's responsibility to be sure parliament can be productive.

Doesn't the PM have some responsibility to work with the elected government?

Owen Gray said...

In a minority government, Mel, he has a responsibility to work with the opposition, if he wishes to get anything passed.

The irony is that he has got most of his stuff through the House. But his really radical stuff can only pass with a majority. He will claim that the opposition has made it impossible to govern. What he really means is that, in the present situation, he cannot put in place the kinds of programs Mike Harris and George W. Bush enacted.