Monday, September 08, 2008

The Cult of the Magician

Even before the Governor General dissolved Canada's 39th Parliament yesterday, the Conservatives were running campaign ads. On television we were treated to a warm and fuzzy Stephen Harper -- a family man -- who was trying to appeal to women voters, a demographic which -- to date -- he has not impressed. On radio, voters have been bombarded for sometime with ads trashing the Liberal Greenshift proposal -- and linking Stephane Dion's name to it at every replay. This ad is presumably aimed at the male population, who (supposedly) are hard headed and who hate taxes -- any taxes.

What both ads attempt to do is to frame the election in terms of personalities rather than programs. Harper is the strong but caring leader in uncertain times. Dion is the unrealistic egghead who is, Mr. Harper says, as radical as Pierre Trudeau.

It has been interesting to hear Harper conjure up Trudeau's ghost. It shows, first of all, that he has no appreciation of Canadian history -- perhaps because he was eleven years old during the October Crisis of 1970. But, more than that, Harper's resurrection of Trudeau reveals that he has fundamentally misunderstood the man and his importance to the country. Harper, unlike Joe Clark, does not have to face Trudeau in a debate. Those of us who remember can imagine what Trudeau's reaction to Harper's "Quebec, a nation within a nation" resolution would have been.

However, in one sense, Harper is like Trudeau. He is trying to don the cape of what Richard Gwyn called The Northern Magus -- the Canadian magician. By focusing on personalities rather than programs, Harper is using the time honoured magician's trick of creating a diversion. Better to focus on the man rather than on what the man has done -- and to create the illusion of prosperity.

And what has been done is much bigger than Harper himself. It is, indeed, ironic that the election was called on the day that the American government decided to bailout Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Not only is it the biggest bailout in American history. It also reveals the literal and figurative fraud behind neo-conservative economic theory. That theory has led to the concentration of wealth at the top of society, while the wages of the vast majority of North Americans have remained stagnant.

At the same time, the gurus of the theory claimed that they wanted to make home ownership affordable for all. Instead of raising wages as the cost of housing went up, these folks made it easier for the middle and lower classes to go into debt. In the United States that policy spawned the sub prime mortgage. In Canada it spawned the forty year mortgage. In both cases, when interest rates rose, homeowners were caught in the downdraft.

The rest of the Harper record is, likewise, a fraud. The man who promised transparency has consistently thumbed his nose at any type of parliamentary oversight. The man who promised to banish corruption from the capitol has not answered allegations about the "financial considerations" which were offered the late Chuck Cadman; or the allegations surrounding the financing of the last Conservative election campaign. Last, but certainly not least, the man who claimed to know a lot about economics has been a prodigal son. As with Fannie and Freddie, taxpayers have been left holding the bag -- and, having blown through a $12 billion surplus, that bag is getting heavier. By calling an election, the prime minster is trying to make all these troubles disappear.

Last week, at the Republican National Convention, Rick Davis -- John McCain's campaign manager -- claimed that the American election was going to be about personalities. Americans heard a great deal about McCain the war hero, while McCain himself announced that "change is coming." Now the Republicans are in the ludicrous position of running against themselves. It will take a real magician to keep the Republicans in power. But polls suggest they are making headway.

Just as polls suggest that Mr. Harper is in striking distance of a majority government here. However, as Barack Obama keeps reminding his audiences, the election is not about him. It's about them. Harper is desperately trying to make the Canadian election about him. But it's about -- in fact, in any democracy it's always about -- us. The task of separating illusion from reality is now in our hands.

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