He can’t swim nude: too many layers to take off

Harper’s political discourse sounds more like a Capt. Kirk-style logical paradox


He can’t swim nude: too many layers to take off“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stephen Harper told an audience in Brampton last week, “in times like these I’m reminded of a quote by investor Warren Buffett.”

By “times like these,” of course, the Prime Minister meant “times when my staff gives me a handy Warren Buffett quote for the big speech.”

Most people who found themselves quoting Warren Buffett last week were quoting the bit where he told a television interviewer the economy has “fallen off a cliff,” but apparently that was a bit gloomy for Harper’s purposes. So here’s what the Prime Minister’s people dug up instead. Buffett “once said, ‘It is only when the tide goes out that you know who was swimming naked,’ ” Harper said. “The global economic crisis has revealed quite a few skinny dippers but Canada is not one of them.”

And indeed it is so. Stephen Harper has not been swimming naked. If anything, he has been swimming in—in—in the very opposite of nakedness. He has been swimming in ample, modest calf-length bathing trunks. And a three-piece suit. And a parka. Wrapped in cellophane.

I am speaking metaphorically, of course, and so was he. What he meant to say was that this country is entering the most difficult period in memory in a position of significant comparative strength. Or as he put it, “This country is entering the most difficult period in memory in a position of significant comparative strength.”

His evidence? “The strongest banking system in the world.” “The best fiscal position in the G7.” The latter refers not only to “the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio and a long-term structural balance in the budgets of most governments” but also to “strengths in off-balance sheet items such as a solvent public pension plan.”

This is all true, and the Prime Minister is right to emphasize these strengths. He did indeed inherit a sturdy, modest banking system: his government has not changed Canadian banking in any way since he was elected in 2006. He did inherit a low debt-to-GDP ratio. As his finance minister, Jim Flaherty, pointed out in last autumn’s economic statement, it’s been the lowest in the G7 since 2004. And it’s true that Canada’s public pensions are solvent because governments a decade ago agreed to hike contributions. Jason Kenney, who today sits in Harper’s cabinet, complained about that decision for years.

But let’s let bygones be bygones. Thanks to Canada’s significant comparative strength, if you’ve just lost your job you’re only 65 per cent as unemployed as you would be if you were Japanese. You might say, “Paul, that’s a meaningless assertion,” and you’d be right. My only defence is that I’ve been listening to the Prime Minister.

“Now some in the opposition are even suggesting that the government should provide notice or even approval for each individual spending project,” he said near the end of his speech. “That is not realistic—ever. And certainly not realistic in today’s world.” Boy, you bet it’s not realistic! It’s also not true. That’s not what the opposition is suggesting. In fact we’re heading toward a handy multi-partisan consensus, because Harper has identified opposition demands which (a) aren’t realistic and (b) don’t exist.

“We’ve got the estimates before Parliament,” he said. “We all need to keep the pressure on the opposition to act.” Small problem: the government hasn’t tabled enabling legislation, and won’t until March 26.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, send them a message: stop the political games,” he actually said next. History will record this as the moment the Prime Minister abandoned political discourse altogether for the sort of logical paradox Capt. Kirk used to make computers explode on Star Trek. He said he doesn’t like games but—he wants the estimates passed but—he hasn’t tabled the enabling legislation but—he wants the games stopped but—BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEEEEP

The good news for Canadians is that the Prime Minister’s statements these days are sometimes true. You can’t just bet against everything he says. Truth and the Prime Minister’s statements are independent variables, like hem lengths and U2 album sales. So when he says the country may come out of a recession before other countries do, that may even be true, even though it wasn’t true when he said, last autumn, that if Canada was going to have a recession it already would have.

If Canada does weather this recession reasonably well, that will be good news for most Canadians, but bad news for those Canadians who are named Michael Ignatieff. Five months after he was re-elected, Harper continues to fare well in the polls compared to his opponent. A Strategic Counsel poll the day before Harper’s big speech showed him four points ahead of the Ignatieff Liberals. Opposition parties normally do well against incumbents in tough times, but apparently the times aren’t tough enough to allow the Liberals to get off the mat.

Why? Because the Liberals are having a nutty year, too. Three months ago the entire Liberal caucus signed a letter endorsing a coalition with the NDP. Now they wish we would stop mentioning it. This is the patented Liberal Caucus Multiple-Choice Exam, in which any answer can be correct or not, depending on the timing:

1. Coalition government: (a) Excellent idea; (b) Really not.

2. Paul Martin: (a) Juggernaut; (b) Never mind.

3. Stéphane Dion: (a) Could be worse; (b) Wrong again.

All of which explains why Stephen Harper is heading into the most difficult period in memory in a position of significant comparative strength. The crisis has revealed some skinny dippers, but Stephen Harper is not one of them. And that’s something for which every Canadian can be grateful.

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He can’t swim nude: too many layers to take off

  1. If I were to return to the Liberal tent the answers would be : (envelope please from trusted assistant)

    – then again being a former hyper-partisan Liberal I would be spending too much time trying to paint conservatives as evil meanie troglodytes with a leader hitler would be proud of.

    • I laughed at the last line too. One of the reasons our beloved columnist is so effective at thrashing Harper like a rented mule is that he does so with considerable skill, merriment and wit.

      • Not to sound like an obsequious devotee (thanks thesaurus!), but I think the wit factor is a big draw for almost all of the Macleans columnists/bloggers. O’Malley, Coyne, Wells, Steyn and Feschuk (obviously), all make me chuckle on a relatively regular basis. Potter and Wherry do as well, on occasion. It’s a real selling point for people – at least those people unfortunate enough to think and act like me (God help them).

  2. The next Ryerson student who “confects” a Wells parody will be sure to include the obligatory Harper cheap shot that has become a staple of Wells’ lengthier pieces. It could be about Harper’s weight, his character, or his alleged religious beliefs. Many are funny, some are forced. The only thing we know for sure is that there’s a gratuitous swipe embedded in every column or blog posting, kind of like an Easter Egg tucked away in a video game.

    • I’ve re-read this piece 3 times now, looking for your “gratuitous swipe”. Swipes, I’ve found. Gratuitous, not.

      Perhaps you’d care to elucidate?

      • Well, it’s probably not fair for me to use the word “gratuitous” in this case because it’s obviously a humor piece. In a more serious column, a reference to Harper’s corpulent frame stuffed into a bathing suit could be considered gratuitous.

        • I don’t think Wells actually referred to a “corpulent frame”. He merely referred to an “ample” bathing suit. Which could refer to its length, not its girth. The fact that you immediately assumed he refers to our PMs well-fed frame, says more about said PM than Wells’ gratuitousness.

          Sorry to be picky, though….

          • John, I’m pretty sure we all understood the bathing suit quip. Sometimes the art of good writing is not so much what is said, as what is left unsaid. This is especially true for fat jokes.

  3. even though it wasn’t true when he said, last autumn, that if Canada was going to have a recession it already would have.

    Paul, did you you know in advance that

    1) Lehman Brothers would blow up and
    2) The US treasury would botch it up completely?

    If so, why didn’t you tell us? I would have liked to know in advance. So would have Stephen Harper, Mark Carney and approximately 6 billion other people.

    Seriously. Stuffing this through the meat grinder of Canadian party politics is not helpful.

    • So the entire world economy is in dire staits because of Lehman Brothers and the US Treasury’s botching of the response thereto? Seems like there might be just a tiny tad more to the story…

      And isn’t it the JOB of people like the PM to be on top of things that might cause such economic disruptions, more than that of journalists? Especially since he’s an economist, after all.

      • There seems to be a pretty clear consensus that the Lehman Brothers failure shut down credit markets – everyone was worried about counterparty risk, so no-one would lend to anyone – and that caused the meltdown. The credit meltdown wasn’t inevitable; if the US Treasury had not allowed it to fail, things would have turned out much differently.

        And no, journalists shouldn’t have known any better. But there’s pretty much nothing to suggest that Stephen Harper or Mark Carney should have, either. Would it make any more sense for Harper and Carney to publicly denounce Paul Wells for not predicting the crisis?

        • Stephen Gordon….always an advocate for more government intervention….let’s hear it for nationalisation of failing banks!

        • No, the failure of this firm was a symptom, not a cause. The cause was ‘irrational exuberance’ and greed, signs of which have been painfully obvious for years. Your statement is akin to saying the cause of WWII was the invasion of Poland…

    • But it makes really good sausage.

      • ” . . . stuffing this through the meat grinder of Canadian party politics . . .” that is.

  4. Thorougly enjoyed it!

    Best line: “Truth and the Prime Minister’s statements are independent variables”

    Funniest line: the title

    Perhaps we should also be grateful that Rae isn’t PM, or we might have a repeat performance.

  5. Oh, hell. I did not mean “fatty” when I wrote “ample.” I started with “thigh-length” or “demure” or something, changed to a more common word, and got into trouble. Of course you could have read it as a dig at the PM’s frame. If I ever do that, you are all free to point out that I’m the last guy who should be critiquing men’s physiques, and you’ll be right to do so.I am grateful he refrains from skinny-dipping for reasons that have nothing to do with girth or its absence.

    Stephen, I’m a crappy economic predictor, so I like to fall back on experts like S. Harper, who devoted his 2007 year-enders to predicting a rough year ahead. Today the Conservatives like to alternate between (a) nobody saw a recession coming and (b) we predicted it and the Liberals said we were mean. They’re free to do that. I’m free to make fun. You’re free to be dour. Everyone’s free!

    • From a strictly comedic and satirical perspective (not partisan or political) : I’m glad you’re taking jabs at the Liberals again, Paul. The handful of paragraphs on the Liberals in this article are funnier than any fun you’ve had at the Tories’ expense over the past few months. I actually laughed out loud at the multiple choice questions.

    • Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

    • When I read the article I didn’t notice a “fat” shot.

      Because, on re-reading, there isn’t one. The modifier is in respect of swimming trunks; “He has been swimming in ample, modest calf-length bathing trunks.”

      I suppose, at a stretch, one could read into it a tubby Harper allusion – but that would be a stretch.

      The whole sentence, however, seems unnecessary to me – which is, I suppose, a more serious criticism. The fact you had to re-write it says, to me, your eye wasn’t really on the ball in the first place?

      Now I, for instance, have no problem writing a “fat” shot about Harper. In fact the first time I noticed [The photos from Harper’s trip to Afghanistan. He tries to hide it, that’s fat.] I mentioned to my Conservative [Campaign manager Conservative] friend, “If Harper’s so smart – I don’t see it myself – why is he fat?”

      I’m still waiting for an answer to that.

      • “If Harper’s so smart – I don’t see it myself – why is he fat?”

        Personally, I know quite a few smart people who also overweight. I don’t think those two variables are really correlated.

        I think I read an interview once where Harper essentially admitted that he ate junk food to cope with stress and long hours. I suppose there are worse coping mechanisms out there.

    • Everyone’s free!

      Tell that to present and future taxpayers, Paul…

    • “girth or its absence”

      LOL. Wells is the king of double entendres.

      • No one wins with a hung jury.

  6. “because Harper has identified opposition demands which (a) aren’t realistic and (b) don’t exist”

    What does that remind me of? Oh yeah, the super-scary hidden agenda, which would have imposed social conservative mores of early-bedtimes and sexual abstinence nationwide. Imitation is the greatest flattery. The hidden agenda tactic is certainly an infuriating one.

    • Number of times some variation of the “hidden agenda” lie has been used against Harper by politicians and the media over the past seven years: 1,024,983.

  7. Thanks for that, I needed a good laugh.

  8. Surely it was Mr. Spock who made the computers blow up on Star Trek.

    • In Mudd’s Women, as I recall, it was a tag team.

  9. With the American goverment dropping the ball on the automotive bailout, NOW would be the time for our Canadian politicians to shift auto production to Canada. Lend them what they need to restructure for canadian production. This would ensure canadian jobs, and brace up all the suppliers and support industries that could kick start our econemy again. The fat cat banks have got enough, give support to the actual workers in this country.

  10. I find this, like Mr Wells’ other recent sallies, fun, entertaining but not very nutritious. Has federal politics has slipped into some strange state that defies analysis? Has Harper cast some strange spell on our political commentators?

    I think there is more to Harper’s reasonable polling numbers than just Liberal failings. We can laugh at his wooden speeches and mangled metaphors but a decent number of canadians are still prepared to vote him back in, and, who knows, it may just have something to do with his policies.

    • …which are?…

      • Good question Paul. Not that this is a great revelation or anything but I have been thinking recently that Canadians, outside us political anoraks, don’t want lots of policy and seem to prefer it when our pols muddle through the issues facing the nation.

        • You mean Grit Girl’s “Making it up as they go along” is playing right into Harper’s hand because that is what Canadians want? Maybe Grit Girl is not Kinsella, but is Poilievre?

          • I think ‘Grit Girl’ is neither here nor there because no one, and I mean no one, is watching those clips. I think it’s pretty sad to see the Natural Governing Party reduced to making videos like those posted at Grit Girl and getting all excited about them.

            Who was the last successful PM to implement lots of major new policies? Trudeau probably and since then, too much change is the kiss of death as far as I can tell. Harper/Cons & Lib numbers have not really changed since last election so that tells me that Harper and his making it up as they go along agenda is working just fine for him.

        • Well, yes and no. Everyone is constantly urging politicians to do this or do that, but sometimes the soundest policy is to do nothing. Doing nothing can be a “policy”, except that no-one in the media or politics would ever accept that to be the case. Harper, somewhat like Chretien, is trying the trick of doing nothing while appearing to do something. I think that a lot of people are quite happy with this state of affairs.

      • Well, in amongst the ducking and weaving and political games-playing, I would put up:
        1. A minimalist stimulus package with just enough fake optimism to quell the panic-mongers
        2. Still fudging and playing for time with respect to global warming
        3. A guarded commitment to Afghanistan
        4. No controversial social policies

        He may not be doing anything dramatically right, but he is far from doing anything terribly bad. Since his polling numbers have remained about the same, a decent proportion of Canadians seem to feel the same. Perhaps my expectations are low but in the constellation of international leaders, he is looking quite bright.

  11. Hey, he’s softening, back to sweater man. He attended the Newfoundland Memorial and didn’t, as far as I could determine, did not take one slash at the Opposition, or even a cheap shot at traitors, socialists, separatists, or Liberal leaders from away. Restraint. Now as for Danny W ??


  12. Capt. Kirk? Don’t you mean Mr Spock?

    • I checked. It’s the “I, Mudd” episode and it’s the whole landing party, including both Kirk and Spock. Chekov takes some of them out with his crazy Russian dancing skillz, and Mudd and Kirk fry Norman’s circuits with the Liar’s Paradox.

  13. As this Hour has 22 Minutes displayed on their show last night, isn’t it hilarious that Obama gets throngs of fans and applause and Harper almost never when he gives speeches? Maybe he should be more inspirational. Oh no wait, that would require him to become a real person and we’re not going to be seeing that any time soon.

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