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The Conservative Party of Canada as Performance Art

The great satirists running our government continue the joke with Mike Duffy's implosion.

By Crawford Kilian 18 May 2013 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Connoisseurs of schadenfreude -- those who take joy in others' misery -- have had a wonderful week.

First the B.C. New Democrats, singing "Jerusalem" as they marched to the polls, were left for dead by the Liberals. They now have four more years to reflect on why they remain out of power: however nice they may be, their adversaries are simply smarter than they are.

They have at least this consolation: The Conservative Party of Canada, better known as the Harper government, is in far worse disarray -- and might even bring down some of its provincial allies as it falls.

The slow-motion implosion of Senator Mike Duffy suddenly accelerated this week with the revelation that the prime minister's chief of staff, Nigel Wright, actually rescued Duffy from financial ruin by writing him a personal cheque for $90,127, so Duffy could pay back what he'd illegally charged the taxpayers in bogus housing expenses.

But that's not the real story. The real story is that Stephen Harper and his caucus are the greatest performance artists of all time.

Like all true artists, Harper and his followers grew up alienated from the ordinary Canadians around them. Others might rejoice in being part of a just society, multiculturalism, and a country that the world respected. The proto-Conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s despised all that, not to mention the parliamentary democracy that had given birth to them.

Outsiders understand insiders very well; insiders rarely have a clue about outsiders. So Harper and his followers took the measure of the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and New Democrats, and developed a political movement inspired more by Dada than by fiscal or social conservatism.

Pierre Poilievre, meet Buster Keaton

In the process they developed a new form of satire, in which they could recite gibberish as "talking points" and millions of Canadians would nod as if they made sense. A movement developed within the Conservatives, with various MPs competing to see who could get away with the most outrageous assertion. The master at this is Pierre Poilievre, who became the Buster Keaton of this deadpan comedy art form with his classic one-liner, "The root cause of terrorism is terrorists."

So it was no surprise that Poilievre would deliver one gag after another in his defence of Senator Duffy: Nigel Wright had done the "honourable thing" in writing the cheque for Senator Duffy, and not to rescue a political hack but "the taxpayers." Poilievre's delivery was so smooth that not a single interviewer asked him why the taxpayers would be involved in covering a private debt.

This week has climaxed seven long years of Conservative performance art, all inspired by the old artistic desire to épater le bourgeois, to kick the dull Canadians who think government should do reasonable things to achieve reasonable goals yielding reasonable benefit to Canadians.

The art consisted in doing unreasonable, baffling things, while keeping a straight face: suddenly siding with Israel in the 2006 war in Lebanon (while dismissing the death of a Canadian peacekeeper, Major Paeta Hess-von Krudener, killed by the Israelis); trashing the reputation of Richard Colvin, a Canadian diplomat who expressed alarm about Canadian troops handing over Taliban prisoners to torture; and scrapping the long-form census.

The Conservatives must have been delighted to see seven years of public failure to understand them. Everyone, including rank-and-file conservatives, thought some sophisticated political plan was afoot. In fact, it has all been the kind of practical joke that college sophomores would love to play on their roommates, if only they had the imagination.

Political banana peels

All these measures, not to mention proroguing Parliament, the F-35, robocalls, the pre-emptive attack on "radical" environmentalists over the Northern Gateway pipeline, and Vic Toews' "child pornographers," were simply banana peels on which Canadians obligingly slipped, time after time. It's a testament to the Conservatives' strength of character that they have never given the game away by dissolving into giggles.

Only now, with the implosion of Mike Duffy, does the proverbial penny begin to drop. After all, this was the journalist who, at Pierre Trudeau's funeral in 2000, reminded Margaret Trudeau that it was also the anniversary of their son Michel's death. That was a piece of improvised performance art that must have caught the attention of the rising maestro Stephen Harper.

Harper and his caucus have been lampooning any pretense to legitimacy that the House of Commons, and government itself, might have. So it would make sense that the prime minister who had long criticized the Senate would appoint fellow-artists like Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau to the Red Chamber, where they could dramatize just how bankrupt that institution is. The failure of the media to remember Harper's responsibility for these appointments only makes the joke better.

The performance could continue, though it will be hard to top the events of this week. If enough Canadians continue to take Stephen Harper and his government seriously, a couple of resignations and some strategic distractions might get them through, buying them enough time for still more pranks. Could they actually last until 2015, juggling attack ads against Justin Trudeau and one-liners from Pierre Poilievre?

No doubt they'll try. But if they succeed, the laugh will truly be on us.  [Tyee]

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