Stephen Harper seeks shelter from a bad week

The worst week of Stephen Harper's fifth campaign ends with a story about swampland

(Adrian Wyld/CP)

(Adrian Wyld/CP)

Around 20 minutes to seven, about five minutes short of the appointed time, the soundtrack turned to Gimme Shelter, the smouldering Vietnam-era classic of the Rolling Stones. This was followed by the empty-calorie pop-punk of Blink 182’s All the Small Things. Then, with the performers apparently not yet ready to take the stage, came Fatboy Slim’s absurdist big-beat Rockefeller Skank, which some in the crowd briefly overlaid with a chant of “Four! More! Years!” And then there was the enduring harmlessness of Montell Jordan’s mid-’90s hip-hop standard, This Is How We Do it.

So perhaps fine-tuning the warm-up playlist can be put near the top of Lynton Crosby‘s to-do list. Or perhaps this mix is his doing, a carefully selected set of popular songs, genres, beats and lyrical cues meant to reach the carefully targeted sub-groups of the electorate whom the Conservatives must motivate to turn out on Oct. 19. Identifying the presence of political brilliance is always a bit of a mug’s game before the votes are cast (at which point it becomes obvious).

The sixth and worst week—at least until next week?—of Stephen Harper’s fifth campaign as leader of the Conservative party came to an end here, inside the Greyhound bus company’s maintenance depot in an obscure corner of south Ottawa. Five buses were arranged as makeshift walls to form something of a venue inside the cavernous garage, a raised platform surrounded on all four sides by cheering partisans. On two of the buses were arranged campaign signs for the local Conservative candidates. Behind one tiered array of the faithful, opposite where the television cameras were to be positioned, a giant Canadian flag had been hung as backdrop. Two merely large Canadian flags were hung to the right and left, presumably, to try to cover any images of the leader that might be recorded by the roving photographers. Harper arrived in his officially decorated campaign bus, which pulled up to the edge of the crowd and allowed him to disembark into the faithful (to the tune of Collective Soul’s Better Now, Mr. Harper’s long-standing theme song).

Here, then, there would be little-to-nothing of what you might be hearing elsewhere.

“In fact, friends, just a little bit of news on that front,” the Prime Minister said about seven minutes into his presentation, segueing from some boasting about the budget being balanced, which maybe it will even turn out to be, “because I’m not sure you actually hear any real news.”

The Prime Minister waved his hands about a bit at this mention of real news. There was laughter from the assembled, then applause. The Prime Minister managed what could either be described as a wry smile or a smirk. This line apparently wasn’t new, but I am told by someone who has heard it before that it was delivered with more “vim” this time.

The news of the week included: a candidate who urinated in a stranger’s coffee mug; a candidate who impersonated a mentally disabled individual as part of a prank call; recent suggestions of turmoil within the leadership of the Conservative campaign, and one anonymous Conservative’s subsequent assertion that someone was “obviously trying to f–k us”; and, of course, the Syrian refugee crisis, a matter that, beyond serious questions of principle and policy, has had cabinet ministers complaining about media coverage (first, Chris Alexander’s unfortunate attempt to accuse the CBC of ignoring the issue, then, Jason Kenney’s admonition that the media was ignoring the government’s good work); campaign staff shielding another cabinet minister from reporters’ questions; and a Conservative candidate’s spouse heckling a reporter’s attempt to enquire further of the Prime Minister. And before this week, there had already been the trial of Mike Duffy—with its myriad of revelations and questions raised—and the official declaration of a recession.

Of course, views on the realness of such things may vary. Harper—a man who has managed to squeeze nearly a decade in power out of support that has never officially amounted to even 40 per cent of the electorate—has always seemed to have a good understanding of how little and how much he can get away with, of precisely what matters so far as his ability to continue governing. This election is perhaps the ultimate test of that.

“But the real news is that, for the first three months of this fiscal year, three difficult months, we all admit, but for those first three months, we’re ahead of schedule,” Stephen Harper reported. “We actually have a $5-billion surplus.”

This was deemed worthy of a standing ovation, which perhaps kept the Prime Minister from acknowledging the parliamentary budget officer’s estimate that the federal budget will still show more than a small deficit at the end of the fiscal year (news that Joe Oliver was filmed walking away from back in July, shortly before he was officially spared having to explain himself to Parliament).

For all of the above, it’s still possible to see Harper as a man running the campaign of his dreams. He is matched against a downtown-Montreal New Democrat and a Liberal party that is depending on the son of Pierre Trudeau, and Harper is selling something like the Platonic ideal of a conservative appeal: a government that exists to cut taxes and stop the bad guys. His stump speech mostly dwells on those themes of costing less (or paying out more) and being more willing to fight. His opponents are damned for doing the opposite: spending more (never mind on what) and fighting less.

It is, of course, unfortunate for Harper that he should be the incumbent at a moment when two-thirds of Canadians want change, but it is perhaps indicative of something—the resonance of his message, his skill as a political actor, the weaknesses of his opponents and critics, or simply the near-mythological status of the Conservative party as an operation not to be underestimated—that it does not yet seem completely implausible that his party could come away from Oct. 19 with at least a plurality of seats.

His response to the prospect of change is an analogy.

“So friends, now some will say, they’ll say, you will hear this, oh yeah, that’s all true, but let’s try a change. Let’s try the NDP or let’s try the Liberals. Let’s try a change. Okay, what kind of change? I think that’s the first thing you would ask. You know, maybe you want a better house. Does that mean you go out and buy swampland?”

The crowd laughed.

“You know, swampland. That is what a national plan for runaway spending, taxes and debt is all about.”

Tommy Douglas had the story of mouseland, and now Stephen Harper has swampland.

Though not perfectly told by the Prime Minister, this seems like a reference to the old joke about the land scams of the 1960s—a reference that those 50 years of age and older might more immediately recognize and understand. The suggestion, if better developed, would be that what Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are selling is a lovely notion of a new home to be built on what is, in actual fact, Florida swampland. That Mulcair and Trudeau are running a scam. (It is unclear which side would benefit here from pointing out that Disney World was built on Florida swampland.)

The secondary implication is that you should be happy with what you have. The current house-sitter isn’t perfect; that much is now readily acknowledged. He’s let Mike Duffy crash on the couch. Omnibus budget bills are piling up in the living room and the access-to-information system is clogged and some of the money in the sock drawer was used to frame some Economic Action Plan™ signs and hang them in every room and, sometimes, when you call the house to check in, you get Paul Calandra instead and he starts yammering at you about his father’s pizza parlour. But are you sure you want to buy a new house? Haven’t you seen what happened to that nice Greek family on the next street over?

Harper must worry, though, that voters see the change on offer less as taking a flyer on a parcel of land in Florida than as merely renovating—you know, brightening the place up a bit, maybe installing some solar panels or building a play room for the kids.

Indeed, the Conservative leader himself would seem to understand that periodic interest in fixing things up, having committed very early in this campaign to spending $1.5 billion in public funds to help folks redo their kitchens and whatnot. “For most Canadians, the family home is their biggest financial investment and the place where they raise their children, relax with friends and family, and enjoy their golden years,” the Prime Minister was said to have said then. “A permanent Home Renovation Tax Credit will help make it more affordable for Canadians to ensure their home meets their needs.”

Whatever the basic blessing of shelter, it is perhaps difficult to go too long without wanting to change things up somehow.