Minuets & monster trucks: the campaign begins

Harper wants you to think he’s a friend to artists, Ignatieff that he’s a manly man

Minuets & monster trucks: the campaign beginsThese are always fun. “PMO MEDIA ADVISORY,” the Friday night email to reporters said. “OTTAWA—Public event for Prime Minister Stephen Harper for Saturday, May 2 is: Toronto, 2:00 p.m.—Prime Minister Stephen Harper will participate in a photo opportunity.”

Journalists (“cameras and photographers only,” the release said) were to convene at a building on King Street at an appointed hour, where a bus would take them to “the photo-op location.” Of course there was no hint of the location or subject.

This is how this Prime Minister organizes campaign events. Actually, it’s not very different from how previous prime ministers did. The location is kept secret so political opponents and protesters can’t show up and make trouble. The resulting pictures will, it’s hoped, advance some story about the Prime Minister’s preferred vision of himself in the world. The moment was hardly typical: that day in Vancouver, Michael Ignatieff was making his debut as the newly legitimate leader of the Liberal party.

So what show did the PM put on to counter the unveiling of Count Iggy, whose party has lately risen past the Conservatives in national polls? The result arrived in the next day’s communiqué. “Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited today with students at the Royal Conservatory of Music.”

So much in Canadian politics these days is like this. It’s not brilliant, but neither is it boneheaded. It’s just a little . . . odd. “The Prime Minister participated in a live virtual music demonstration by playing piano chords, which were subsequently assembled into a unique musical composition by students,” the PMO informed us. He toured the new Koerner Hall next door too. I’m told it’s lovely.

So this is all designed to cleverly pre-position Stephen Harper as . . . what, precisely? A fan of virtual music? Nostalgic for the piano lessons of youth? A tortured artist, or friend to tortured artists? A gallant suitor, ready to fight Ignatieff for Yo-Yo Ma’s love and attention?

If nothing else, the little photo-op at the conservatory was a good prelude to the next election campaign, which has essentially already begun and will—we’re not sure quite how to break this to you—never end.

The campaign festivities begin with an extended defensive overture in which the protagonists attempt to prove they are what they aren’t. Or, at a minimum, that they aren’t what they are. Ignatieff’s contribution is his book, True Patriot Love (it got a better focus-group response than the working titles, Dawn’s Early Light and This Scepter’d Isle), in which he presents his alibi for that little three-decade absence from Canada. My favourite part was Chapter 3, “I Swear to God They Told Me It Was Nanaimo.”

Harper, meanwhile, does penance for those 2008 cuts to arts programs by posing as, well, a Medici. His emissaries have criss-crossed the country, running down artists like wildebeests and stuffing wads of cash into their frocks and tutus. Three million for the Montreal Jazz Festival. Three million for the Toronto Film Festival. Two million for the Calgary Stampede. Seven hundred thousand for the Canadian Opera Company. These are actual fundraising announcements. In a warehouse outside Ottawa, teams of colour consultants are matching taupes for the new Conservative campaign bus, which features a photo of Harper in a tux and the slogan, “PARDON ME, DO YOU HAVE ANY GREY POUPON?”

It’s not really that Harper wants to win the affections of patrons of the arts. He simply wants to slow them down a bit. Artists took a nasty bite out of his hide, especially in Quebec, last October. This time around he aims to be nimbler.

Ignatieff, meanwhile, has taken to unscrewing beer bottles with his teeth and provoking random bar fights. He is hoping to open for Kiss at Sarnia’s Bayfest this year by popping a wheelie with the monster truck he bought in Daytona. He stripped the drivetrain himself, as he will explain in his new book, I Stripped the Drivetrain Myself.

The goal of these manoeuvres is not to win over skeptics so much as it is to make skepticism, as a mindset, seem futile. Harper spent his life warning Canadian federalists against Quebec nationalism. In 2006 he made his debut as Quebec nationalism’s best friend. For years he was a steely man whose heart never beat fast except for tanks and tax cuts. In 2008 he discovered a secret stash of fluffy cardigans.

In 2006 Ignatieff wanted to recognize Quebec as a nation in the Constitution. No more. For much of his life he had some considerable difficulty recognizing Canada as a nation (“I want to alert readers that I am a Martian outsider”). Now he has discovered that the very roots grow up from the ground through the soles of his feet, and the Red and the Assiniboine course through his veins.

Later, the leaders will try to define each other. Ignatieff will tell you Harper is mean. Harper will tell you Ignatieff wants to raise taxes. Each man is hoping you will be thinking of the other, and scowling, when you vote. But before they define each other, they must first define themselves. Except that’s not quite true, is it? What they’re really doing is erasing themselves. It is customary, when two minimally intelligent leaders square off, to hope for a campaign of ideas. These two are too smart to offer ideas. If both get their way, when the real campaign begins, we will not be able to find either man with teams of bloodhounds.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.