The Year in Tony Clement

If there was a defining visage for this government in 2010, it was likely Teflon Tony's

Is it possible we misunderstand what Teflon is, what purpose it serves? Technically speaking, polytetrafluoroethylene is a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene. Applied as a coating to cookware and the like, it reduces friction, allowing stuff like scrambled eggs to slide off more easily.

As an analogy, it works much the same. One who is said to be made of, or covered with, Teflon avoids blame, scorn or lasting injury no matter the scandal, misstep or wrongdoing. He who can walk through a firestorm without suffering so much as a singe of his shirt cuffs. He, for that matter, who whistles his way through it all, going mostly unnoticed.

As analogies go, this much seems fairly straightforward. And it is only to wonder whether some misunderstand the implication because of at least two attempts in recent weeks to suggest Tony Clement has something in common with the substance.

If there was a defining visage for this government in 2010 it was likely Mr. Clement’s. If in the past the lasting image was that of John Baird’s mug—brow furrowed, eyes blazing, mouth open in mid-belligerence—this year it was Mr. Clement, waving and shrugging and flailing his arms about and often turning entirely away from the opposition to beg and plead his case to his own side. On at least one occasion he pivoted and spoke directly to Rona Ambrose, seated behind him and to his left, the Public Works Minister nodding her reassurance as Mr. Clement begged her specific understanding.

Here was, in one sense, a government that wasn’t much interested in sufficiently explaining itself to the outside world. One day the Prime Minister woke up and decided to reverse his repeatedly stated position on the country’s commitment of armed forces to Afghanistan. Another day the government decided to do away with the long-form census. Another day the government asserted new principles for the distribution of foreign aid. Another day it was decided that the government would go ahead with billions in spending on new warplanes. Explanations, when anything at all was offered, were meandering and elusive. Anyone who persisted in their questioning was made themselves to explain why they did not sufficiently support the troops or, in the case of the census, were so set on harassing and imprisoning the nation’s grandmothers.

But Mr. Clement himself was a man unique in how much he had to account for and how demonstrably he made a show of dismissing dissent. Of all that burdened this government in 2010, the majority of it seemed somehow to involve him. The census, the G8 legacy toilets, the F-35s, the resignation of Munir Sheikh, Potash. From that bizarre mess of public policy and federal administration came repeated questions. On those questions was Mr. Clement regularly made to stand and wave his arms all around. And in the wake of such performances did he periodically take to Twitter to flail about electronically.

After awhile, he came to recall the cartoon character who runs head long into his opponents out-stretched fist. He charged on, no matter how mystifying the policy or outraged the critics. Perhaps he enjoyed it all. Indeed, often times he seemed to be having some degree of fun. Maybe that seemed all the more odd. But then so too did his decision to continue wearing sideburns. There is sometimes simply no accounting for what drives a man.

To suggest he is made of Teflon is to claim that everyone has already forgotten about all of this. That no one noticed. Neither of which would seem to be true. (In a year-end survey of notable economists, for whatever it’s worth, several counted Clement-related decisions—the cancellation of the long-form census and the rejection of the Potash takeover—as the worst ideas the last year.) Rob Nicholson, the Justice Minister who regularly rages against the opposition, but who’s never really been made to explain how anything he’s done will result in less crime, wears suits that are lacquered in Teflon. Jim Flaherty, whose personal charm seems to make up for much of what he actually says, runs a little Teflon through his hair before leaving for work each morning. This government itself, unharmed at the polls after a year of such oddity and acrimony, could be said to benefit from a bit of Teflon (or at least the public’s traditional willingness to stick with the incumbent). Tony Clement spent the year clad in fly paper, drenched in carpenter’s glue, wrapped in whatever sort of magnets attract criticism, complaint and mockery. His eagerness to engage those who ridicule might make him daring (to an unadvisable degree). His ability and willingness to withstand such outrage might make him the personification of the perfect member of a Harper cabinet. But if he possesses any polytetrafluoroethylene it is likely internal, coating his stomach and making him able to swallow all of it with a smile.

Indeed, while it might seem a compliment to liken him to a non-stick frying pan, it is perhaps a disservice. To suggest that any of what happened these last 12 months has slid off him and his permanent record is to dishonour his effort, to discount the decisions made and the sheer physical energy expended in defending those choices. So whenever future generations wonder what happened to the census of 2011, whenever one next tries to untangle this government’s policies on military procurement or foreign investment or the role of the public service, whenever a desperate tourist needs to find a public toilet in a remote part of Muskoka, let them think fondly of Mr. Clement, arms aloft or fingers typing, attempting to shoo and tweet it all away—undaunted and defiant.

For this was a muddle of a year, the ramifications of which we can only now imagine. And when the history books get round to recording 2010, a picture of Mr. Clement in mid-shrug would seem a fitting illustration—either of this government at work or of this government’s critics looking on in helpless bewilderment.

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