“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.