Stephen Harper in Calgary: Let's never let 2007 end -

Stephen Harper in Calgary: Let’s never let 2007 end

‘ Campaign in poetry, govern in fantasy’ — Paul Wells on the PM’s convention speech

(Canadian Press)

In its quest to provide ever-more-rudimentary service to the Media Party, the Prime Minister’s Office has for some time now been distributing texts of Stephen Harper’s speeches in the format in which they are fed into the big guy’s teleprompter. The sentences are broken up, the lines never more than a few syllables long, the complex words sometimes spelled phonetically and broken into syllables.

The effect is often pleasant, as though we were being given scraps of found poetry. Here’s how Harper’s speech to the Conservative Party convention read in the version we received early, under embargo:

Chers amis,

c’est un véritable plaisir

de me retrouver

parmi vous

ici ce soir.

My friends,

it’s wonderful to be

with the Conservative family,

here in Calgary,…

Canada’s great city

on the Bow!

We all know what happened,

to Calgary

and to much

of southern Alberta,

this past June. [1]

I have no idea what the [1] signifies, though I suspect it’s a timing cue. I’d admit a preference for the more daring metaphors of  E.J. Pratt, writing here about the Canadian Shield…

This folded reptile was asleep or dead:

So motionless, she seemed stone dead — just seemed:

She was too old for death, too old for life,

For as if jealous of all living forms

She had lain there before bivalves began

To catacomb their shells on western mountains.

… but then I really would be part of the Laurentian consensus. Let us instead concentrate on the sample at hand. Here’s a prime minister reciting blank verse in public! Shouldn’t somebody tell Yann Martel? Another excerpt:

In a world that is struggling,

Canada is rising,

Being steadily lifted

by a rising tide.

Our sound finances,

our stable politics,

our expanding network

of trade relationships,

our natural wealth, …

and the growing demand for it

worldwide, …

and above all,

the ingenuity

of our people … [7]

So the first news out of the BMO Centre is that the Prime Minister still has faith in the ingenuity of our people. Or at least of [7] of our people. It’s not entirely clear. The next news is that the impression of poetry in the distributed text was entirely misleading, because even by this Prime Minister’s standards, this was a really prosaic speech.

At the same party’s 2008 convention in Winnipeg, Harper pressed a sweeping claim for the Conservatives as the proper guardians of a certain idea of Canada. “the Conservative story is Canada’s story,” he said then. “It is a story about people from all walks of life joining together to work toward common goals … about building together what we could never have built alone.” In 2011 in Ottawa he resuscitated the notion in similarly sweeping language.

But in both those earlier convention speeches, victory was recent and the wolves were nowhere near the door. (Or so it seemed: in 2008, the coalition crisis that nearly unseated Harper was only a few weeks in the future.) Back then, Harper felt he could permit himself the occasional rhetorical flourish. Now he is in deep a bit, and there is no time for fancy. Assorted commentators were heard to say ahead of the event that he had to give the speech of his life. I’ll show them, he said to himself as he bent over early drafts. I’ll give a speech that drives the memory of other people’s good speeches out of their skulls.

“Day in, and day out, we are facing tough choices. And we are making the right decisions for Canada, for the right reasons. And, my friends, the results are clear.” And what results are those? “A rare, a unique moment of national opportunity.”

How did this happen? Tell us! Tell us! “We started, as we promised, by cutting the GST from 7, to 6, to 5 per cent!” And it’s true. He did. While George W. Bush was still the U.S. President. “We took money out of the hands of the lobbyists, academics and bureaucrats, and we gave it to the real childcare experts. Their names are Mom and Dad!” Also true. Also not newly true. From the Universal Child Benefit to the seat for Quebec at UNESCO, to the recognition of the Québécois nation, he spent a fair amount of time rehearsing for the 2008 election.

Which is not quite the same as saying he was wasting his or his audience’s time. For as he kept repeating, a Conservative government did these things, and no Liberal government had, and no NDP government, on most of these files, would. “The NDP and the Liberals opposed us at every turn,” he said. (His prepared text did not mention the Bloc Québécois at any point, even in the parts where he was speaking in French on Quebec topics.) Yesterday one wag suggested Harper didn’t actually need to deliver a speech-of-his-life, and that his ambition should be more modest: “He needs to make the generic case he would make to any audience — economy and trade — and the narrower case that works best with Conservatives — Wheat Board, long-gun registry, resource exports, crime,” this fellow wrote.  It didn’t take nuclear-strength prescience, but Harper wound up ringing every one of those bells. “Ours is the party that stood up for the right of prairie grain farmers to sell their own products.” Etcetera. Etcetera.

There were a few bits about elites (he’s against) and fancy clubs (not a member) as well as a reminder that he’s on track to finish the Dempster Highway. And what of all those elite pundits from the fancy clubs who didn’t say a word about how Harper had to mention the Dempster Highway? You can’t trust them, is what I’m saying. Because he did. And who’s the prime minister? Exactly.

But of course what everyone was waiting for was the bit about the Senate. Here, Harper’s delivery was so galvanizing — “I couldn’t care less what they say; we will do the right thing!” he said, to roars from the receptive crowd — that many might have missed how radically he has redefined “the right thing” downward.

Related stories from Paul Wells: 

This speech appeared to be an abandonment of Harper’s Senate reform agenda, disguised as defiance and wrapped in shopping lists.

“This is the only party that has tried to reform the Senate,” he said. “We were blocked by the other parties in the minority parliaments. And now we are being blocked in the courts. So, friends, it is time for the Senate to show it can reform itself.”

And what was the sum total of this Senate self-reform agenda? “Suspend those Senators without pay!”

Let’s replay that in slow motion. He “has tried” to reform the Senate, he said. But his plans were blocked by the bad guys and now they are “blocked in the courts.” Come again? The only court cases dealing with Senate reform are the Quebec Appeals Court reference, brought by the former Quebec government of Jean Charest. That court has already found that consultative Senate elections and term limits — the Harper agenda until now — would require the consent of seven provincial governments representing half the country’s population. Senate abolition, with which Harper has flirted, would require unanimous provincial consent.

The other case is Harper’s own reference to the Supreme Court of Canada, which will hear arguments in the second week of November. It’ll be surprising if the Supremes don’t reach conclusions similar to those of the Quebec Appeals Court. I’ll let you know when it happens.

So the courts haven’t blocked Senate reform. One has explained how it might happen; another will follow suit presently. It would seem to require some intergovernmentalism and a dash of good luck. On the evidence of his remarks tonight, Harper doesn’t want to give it a try. I’m not sure he’s wrong. It would be messy and the outcome uncertain. But the bit where he blames the courts is a bonus bit of fiction. Campaign in poetry, govern in fantasy.

But there’s more. When Harper says “it is time for the Senate to show it can reform itself,” he appears to be collapsing his ambitions for Senate reform down to a single desideratum: dock the pay of Sens. Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin. The Senate cannot reform its method of election or the length of time its members will serve by itself, nor can it abolish itself.

To describe this speech as prosaic is not to say it is a failure. The goals set for it by some backseat drivers were ahistorically lofty: as a test of the crucial importance of convention speeches in Canadian politics, please feel free to quote any convention speech ever delivered by anyone ever. Nor is it to say this one was devoid of audacity. Perhaps only Stephen Harper could stand in front of 2000 Conservatives in the middle of the Calgary Stampede Fairgrounds, bury the dream of Senate reform, and get a foot-stomping ovation from all present. I tell you, this man is something better than a poet. He’s an escape artist.