Friday, April 21, 2006

harper's conservative propaganda tour; as taxpayers pay the tab ...

PM shows defiant streak

OTTAWA—It could be called the "bring-it-on" tour.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been out all week, aggressively flying in the face of all those who would dare to challenge him, and "Liberal" Toronto is the final stop on that tour.

Today, at a noontime speech at the Royal York Hotel, Harper is expected to hammer away at the formula he believes is working for him: move full-speed ahead with his own agenda, taunt an impressively long list of enemies and rally conservative sentiment to the cause.

The formula has its careful code words and props: Harper pointedly describes himself as head of "the new government" while surrounding himself with the symbols of office, from the big podium to the tiny Canadian flag affixed to his lapel.

Harper is intent on reasserting more traditional symbols of family, the military and the Arctic instead of symbols like multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights, which came to be associated with the Liberals.

As PMO communications director Sandra Buckler explained a while back to the parliamentary press gallery executive: "We're a different kind of government and we place a heavy value on communications and we like the visuals."

Yet Toronto is a symbol and a visual of another kind for Harper. The GTA is still largely Liberal — very few Conservative seats are here and a full eight of the contenders for the Liberal leadership hail from the area.

While Harper accommodated Montreal and Vancouver in his cabinet — with an unelected senator and a Liberal defector — there were no such extraordinary measures for Toronto.

Toronto is home to Queen's Park, too, where Premier Dalton McGuinty has felt the new Conservative chill from Ottawa.

So it is fitting Harper has chosen to land last here in a tour that seemed deliberately designed to show his defiant — some would say contemptuous — streak.

"Get used to it," he said about high fuel prices or the prospect of border tangles when the U.S. starts demanding passports from travellers. Canadians should tell opposition parties to "get with the program" — the Conservative program, that is.

The media, at the front line of Harper's aggressive posture, was compared this week to crying children and lectured for lacking "discretion."

It is a curious mix. This baby-boomer prime minister, who turns 47 later this month, eagerly embraces symbols but he viscerally rejects many of the institutions at the heart of the Canadian political culture.

Highly controlling in style, Harper aspires to be an establishment unto himself, and the means to that end seem to require he knock down all others in the political establishment.

In his speech at a community centre in Burnaby, B.C., on Tuesday, Harper served up something of an enemies list while he was making a speech on his child-care program. This list included the casts of several political institutions, including:

Politicians themselves, namely Liberal politicians, whom he goes out of his way to castigate at every opportunity. It sometimes seems like the election has not ended for Harper.

Academics. By this, Harper doesn't mean the "Calgary school," the clutch of University of Calgary academics who helped forge his early thinking. He means the ones who disagree with him.

Lobbyists and special-interest groups. "People who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules do not have a taxpayer-funded lobby group. They don't have the time to hold demonstrations and they certainly don't make regular trips to Ottawa for news conferences," Harper said.

He presented all these kinds of people as the impediments to a proper child-care program in Canada. But in so doing, he sounded more like an opposition politician on the campaign trail than a prime minister who, technically, is supposed to represent and serve all Canadians, regardless of their politics.

The list didn't end there. Talking to reporters later, he also had dismissive words for other political scene fixtures, including:

Protestors: Specifically, those agitating outside the event against the defection of David Emerson, former Liberal minister, who is now Harper's trade minister. "The same 10 people all the time. It's getting kind of old hat, isn't it?" Harper said.

Last, but not least, the media. Apart from the largely inside-baseball nature of the ongoing dispute with the Ottawa press gallery, it is clear that Harper sees the media as just another institution that gets in his way.

Though Harper once seemed a bit of a fan of the media — appearing as regular TV pundit and frequent opinion-piece contributor to newspapers — his current determination to get the better of the national media, to deliver a come-uppance, seems almost obsessive.

Today, a blue-ribbon crowd of Torontonians will turn out to hear from a prime minister who hasn't seemed that fussed about seeking any attention from the city or the province. The main thing they will probably learn is whether they've been cast already in Harper's polarized world as for him or against him.

It's Harper himself who's been out drawing Canada into those lines this week — you either like his government or you're part of the problem. And if you don't like the way things are, you can either "get used to it," or just try to challenge him.

With files from Tonda MacCharles