Winning the hearts and minds with incompetence


I was watching Andrew on At Issue last night when something Peter Mansbridge said struck me. I’m paraphrasing, but Mansbridge suggested, with a kind of wink-wink demeanor, that “we all know why Maxime Bernier was put into foreign affairs.” The idea being that Harper needed a native Quebecer to sell the war in Afghanistan to his own province.

It’s a widely-accepted notion, and I have no doubt Peter Mansbridge is right. (Josée Verner’s parallel appointment to international aid would seem to confirm it.) And now that Bernier’s run through diplomatic circles has mercifully come to an end, there’s already some fretting about which Quebecer might be promoted to take his place in cabinet.

But there’s a question I keeping coming back to: Why is it that federal governments seem convinced that getting a token Quebecer, no matter how inept, to sell Ottawa back to his or her home province is such a sure-fire strategy for success? Let’s go over some recent low-lights:

  • A foreign affairs minister with no discernible knowledge of global diplomacy figures a box of Jos Louis is a perfect photo-op accessory in Afghanistan. He later calls for the removal of a governor without first discussing it with his allies. Amazingly, neither act settles the ongoing conflict.
  • An international aid minister with no discernable knowledge of development issues flubs her opportunity to arrange actual visits to reconstruction projects in Afghanistan just as she’s called upon to defend their effectiveness. Her work is later immortalized in a photo exhibit appearing at a shopping mall near you.
  • He ostensibly meant to raise the Liberals’ lacklustre profile on the issue, but let’s just try to forget Denis Coderre’s trip to Afghanistan ever happened.
  • Liberals rationalize Stéphane Dion’s nomination as leader as a way for the party to reconnect with Quebecers. Now, they can’t even win over people who were otherwise okay with electing Jean Lapierre as their MP.
  • The idea of sticking a maple leaf on ads for every two-bit Festival Connetré de St-Chicouane to stamp out nationalism did at least provide some of the best daytime TV in Quebec in a long time. But I’m not sure the Gomery hearings were what Chrétien’s Liberals had in mind.

I’m sure I’m missing a few examples—and no doubt neglecting a few succesful strategies, too. But there seems to be a consistent pattern of tokenism ending up in disaster. And yet, we keep expecting it to happen again. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a long tradition of Quebecers doing admirable work in government. So why are they now being used in cheap vote-getting ploys?


Winning the hearts and minds with incompetence

  1. It’s the idea that people will vote or connect with someone just because they share a language or a province. It’s ridiculous- no politician would suggest that english canada would vote for somebody just because he was english. No body would suggest that all chinese would vote for someone just because they were chinese. So where does that leave us?

  2. Whatever mistakes Bernier may have made I don’t think giving Jos Louis to the troops in Afghanistan should be included as one of them. This was a nice gesture and it shouldn’t be conflated with, and denigrated by, other issues.

  3. Out of interest, how many of the Harper conservative MPs speak decent french?

  4. Not sure, but Chantal Hébert recently commented that for the first time EVER, you have 2 Anglo party leaders (Harper, Layton) who are more comfortable in French than the Francophone leader (Dion) is in English. Je tombe dans les pommes…

  5. I’m trying to find that out- however, listening to the broadcasts of the House, quite a number of the conservative party have some pronunciation difficulties.

  6. I’d say the anglophone MPs in both caucuses speak about the same amount of French — and in the Liberals, it’s overwhelmingly the MPs at the higher end of the age distribution who speak French (Ignatieff, Rae. Martha Hall Findlay’s an exception). Among the Tories, it’s the younger ones: James Moore, Jason Kenney, Peter Van Loan. If Mark Holland and Nav Bains aren’t taking very intensive French instruction, well, they’d be typical younger Liberals, I’m afraid. (I don’t know whether they are or not, but I know that in the Tory caucus it’s very clearly understood that improved competence in French is consiered a major asset.)

    On Philippe’s broader question, sometimes tokenism only looks like tokenism because it’s a subset of a larger issue. Harper doesn’t let his Quebec ministers have real jobs because he doesn’t let any of his ministers have real jobs, no matter where they’re from. Flaherty, Prentice and Emerson are exceptions. If Rona Ambrose and Ted Menzies got sex changes Ted would have her spot in cabinet in three seconds. And he’d be as bored as she is, because ain’t nobody going to actually get to run intergovernmental relations as long as Harper is PM.

  7. Can I whine for a second? There is a lot of armchair linguistic analysis going on lately, and I sometimes wonder what the hell criteria, and footage, people are basing their analyses on.

    It started in the 04 and 06 elections, when somebody floated the notion that Stephen Harper was somehow more bilingual than Paul Martin. This conclusion was based on the argument that Martin muddled and mixed up words when over-excited. To which I thought…doesn’t Martin get flustered in pretty much the same way in English? That’s not being bad in French, that’s just…well….

    My point being, the standards of analysis on this type of thing should be twofold: distinguishing between ability to recite vs. ability to think on one’s feet; and distinguishing second-language specific problems from general speaking ticks.

    Based on my own viewing, Moore is considerably stronger than either Jason Kenney or (especially) Van Loan. Or Harper, for that matter, who occasionally stumbles badly the minute he runs out of talking points. Peter Mackay has improved quite a bit. Jim Prentice, John Baird, and I believe Scott Reid can also chew through French talking points.

    On the Liberal side, Marlene Jennings, Dominic LeBlanc, Justin Trudeau (if he gets in, of course) are pretty much fluently bilingual. Geoff Regan, Scott Brison and David McGuinty are also to my recollection quite capable of reading their French QP notes without too much pain. And not to nitpick on Wells’ point, but all of the above are, I believe, under 50 (whether they’re considered rising stars a la Holland and Bains is another matter).

  8. If bilingualism includes reading teleprompters than Harper ranks right up there. I find it very entertaining to see which media take footage with the prompters in visual range. It gives me a good perception as to the nature of that particular media chain…Layton is originally from Hudson Quebec a large anglo-franco community that appreciates and respects both proud cultures. Harper however is as many people forget a displaced Torontonian whose father packed up the family to go and work as a petroleum exec in Alberta…who do you really think encompasses the ideal of Bilingualism or has the capacity to appreciate cultural nuances?

Sign in to comment.