The “major” economic speech delivered by Stephen Harper, to what sounded like a crowd comprised of the dictionary definition of a smattering of applause, deserves to go down as one of the monumentally inept addresses in Canadian political history.
How did it fail? Let us count the ways.
Humour. For a politician, there’s risk in any attempt at comedy, especially if it’s not self-deprecating in nature. This is especially true when the subject of a speech is serious or sombre – say, and this is just an example, a long-awaited address reflecting on the most severe financial crisis in three-quarters of a century.
Harper himself once joked at a press gallery dinner years ago that he doesn’t engage in self-deprecation because his church tells him it’ll make him go blind. That was a funny line at the time. It’s even funnier now that it seems to actually be true. The Prime Minister can no more poke fun at himself than Fonzie could utter “I’m sorry” or George W. Bush could utter 66% of English verb tenses.
That doesn’t mean that Harper declined to treat the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression as Evening at the Improv. He did. He tried to bring the funny on a number of occasions. He even succeeded once (the banking joke, which I mentioned in my liveblog). But his two most memorable “zingers” flopped in the room, and flop even worse when reconsidered:
“I tell people the floor of my office is littered with red tape. I assure you it’s not blood, it’s just red tape.”
I’m not entirely clear what the joke here was supposed to be, but Harper attempted to form the facial expression generally regarded by humans as a “smile,” so I assume it was a punchline. But what was he saying? That the economic downturn is so bad that there’s blood in the streets? (Hilarious!) That he’s a spaz with scissors? I just don’t get it, but it seems pretty tasteless.
“If you own a home and you have a wife, you will probably be doing home renovations this year.”
This was Stephen Harper attempting to explain how his tax credit for home renovations works. He’s here all quadrennium, folks. Try the veal.
During the last U.S. primary season, Rudy Guiliani failed to even ballpark the price of milk. In fact, doing so has become a strange rite of passage for well-heeled Republican candidates. But for sheer out-of-touchness, Harper now wears the crown (it’s the headgear that rises to a point and has the word “Dunce” written on it).
The man truly seems to believe that Canadians are so confident of their future, so dismissive of and unaffected by the recession, that they are lining up to knock down walls, lay down some marble tile and pay $40,000 for a slightly larger room in which to slit their wrists in the bathtub when the collection agencies start calling.
I’m partial to Harper’s campaign quote about how we can’t possibly have a recession because we’d already have had a recession, but that was just political-bullshit evasiveness – the kind that all politicians engage in. This quote, however – this quote is either revealing of Harper’s true assessment of the impact of the recession (no one is hurting and everyone is loaded with cash) or a grim joke at the expense of hundreds of thousands of Canadians who, having recently lost their jobs, would probably prefer a tax credit on something more useful, such as food.
Tone. OK, so he displayed zero empathy for Canadians. That much is obvious, and in retrospect that much was predictable. Far more astonishing was the fact that Stephen Harper showed no awareness whatsoever of the actual effects of the recession, and no sense that he knew or cared what Canadians were thinking, feeling and experiencing.
The way Harper described it, the recession is 100% opportunity. It’s a chance to spend, a chance to get a leg up on the world, a chance to demonstrate Canada’s economic credentials so that our country can lead the world and, more important, he doesn’t get atomic-wedgied by Merkel again at the next G8.
“If there ever was a time to put away that legendary Canadian modesty,” he preened, “it is now!” Really? That’s the message you’re sending to Canadians in the wake of the largest national job loss in three decades? To start bragging? “Jesus, Italy – you call that a recession. We lost that many jobs before lunch on Tuesday.”
Content. Is it safe to say that Harper failed utterly in his ham-fisted attempt to “inspire” the Canadian people? I think it is. In oratorical terms, Canada’s “relative debt-to-GDP” ratio is not exactly the “better angels of our nature.”
Toward the end of his speech, Harper finally tried to get all Obama on us – but he’d just taken a whole whack of partisan (and, for good measure, inaccurate) shots at the opposition, which kind of spoiled the unity vibe, and his Uplifting Rhetoric (tacked on at the conclusion of the address like the rushed and rote farewells at the end of each episode of The Love Boat) was despairingly comic in its lack of imagination and dearth of sincerity. Canada good. Canada strong. Canada also Canada. Good night everybody!
If this is the best that Harper can do in the face of the greatest challenge of his time in office (not counting having to pick out his own clothes on weekends when his stylist-psychic is off), let’s hope he’s right and Canada pulls out of this recession in a hurry. I’m not sure we’re strong enough to survive another speech like that.