Sunday, March 27, 2011

On Dredging Up the Other Guy's Past

So here we are, Canada, into yet another federal election. Prime Minister Harper is predictably dividing his attention in these earliest campaign days between implying that the election was not something Canadians want and trying to arouse fears that the three other main political parties are surreptitiously planning a coalition coup d'etat. I predict that neither theme will get far: having someone whose government has just been historically held in contempt of parliament, sounding off about what average Canadians want sounds, well, a little but like listening to Qaddafi claim that his now squelched military actions against Libyans were launched because he loved them so much.

As to the coalition bogey, no one is all that interested and any trace of authenticity to Harper's fear-mongering have been gloriously detonated by Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe's incontrovertible evidence that the PM was pussyfooting about in 2004 cobbling together precisely the kind of alliance he now pontificates against. Frankly, I think Canada and Quebec would be very well served by an experiment in collaborative governance wherein patriotic Canadians and avowed separatistes were obliged to explore innovations in our fragile federalism.

But mentioning patriotism brings me around to the real thrust of what I have to say about the rhetoric of the incipient election campaign. For many weeks now, Harper's party has been running malicious ads about Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. The thrust of these is that Ignatieff abandoned Canada, coming back only to claim a patrician's due right of governance. Intimations of a longstanding Canadian phobia for absentee rule abound in this unsubtle, mean-minded screed. Weirder yet, coming from George W.'s once-favourite hand puppet is the evidence trumpeted in the ad that Ignatieff - sit down please - admires the USA! What a sin to feel affection for our closest friend, ally and most significant trading partner.

The curiously counter-intuitive message is that an internationally respected public intellectual who has the merit to obtain senior academic posts at Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard, and who has won acclaim and significant international awards for his writing, should be ashamed of having lived outside Canada. He has, in the Harper claque's estimation, the wrong pedigree not to mention divided allegiances.

The problem with probing into one's opponent's background - quite aside from the daft attempt to re-cast incredible achievement as a source of shame - is that it prompts a similar inquiry into one's own background. While Ignatieff was triumphing in noble, world-renowned institutions, Stephen Harper was also putting mind and heart into service for another immediately recognizable global entity - Imperial Oil. Analogous to Ignatieff's following in the footsteps of his famed diplomat father, George, Stevie also was making his dad proud. Papa Joe worked as a star computer expert and accountant for years for the oil giant and no doubt nudged and winked his baby boy into early summer jobs and later a start down a similar vocational pathway, doing financial programming for ExxonMobil's Canadian subsidiary.

The lad's strong identification with oil company interests drove him out of an early involvement in Young Liberal politics and into the welcoming arms of Alberta political crazies who eventually became the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and now the Conservatives. Trudeau's National Energy Program which only slightly and temporarily constrained the financial free play and mega-growth of the oil patch, was the Darth Vader forcing Harper's youthful rightward conversion.

This, then, is the personal past that Harper invites us to stack up against the skeletons, such as they be in Michael Ignatieff's closet. Perhaps, my fellow Canadians as you ponder the choice you should ask this: if Micheal's heart really and secretly resides with the institution of Harvard University while Stephen's belongs to the corporate headquarters of Imperial AKA Exxon, which covert fealty should concern us more?