Next October (or sooner), we will either cast out Stephen Harper or keep him in power for four more years. Pundits have already started their engines; the spinmeisters will soon be upon us like a cloud of mosquitoes.
They will approach the election with the implacable urgency of university faculty lobbying for more parking places. They will remind us of the heavy responsibility we bear, and use all the tactics of shock and awe to chivvy us to the polls. There, our shaking hands are to grasp the pencil and decree the direction Canada should take henceforth. It will all be unbearably solemn.
How did Canadians, of all people, get into this glum, obedient state of mind? The first Canadian volunteers to reach Britain in the First World War soon gained a reputation as bloody-minded, disrespectful and insubordinate. Today's Canadian is defined as the kind of person who says "sorry" when you step on their foot; the Canadian of a century ago would have punched your lights out.
That disrespect for authority expressed itself not just in cheerful contempt for their officers but also for their politicians as well. Canadians who ran for office also ran a gamut of crude jokes and ridicule from veterans and civilians alike.
This tradition flourished right up to recent years. In the midst of Trudeaumania in 1968, the great man was already being lampooned in books, opinion columns and cartoons. Journalist Stanley Burke and cartoonist Roy Peterson collaborated in the 1970s on Frog Fables and Beaver Tales and a sequel, which portrayed Pierre Trudeau as a frog -- amusing many and scandalizing none. He was succeeded by John Turner, who was soon sent off thanks in part to the shields women wore to protect themselves against Turner's famous bum-pats.
The Tories took plenty of flak as well; the CBC's Max Ferguson made his reputation with a sendup of John Diefenbaker's pompous, wattle-shaking speaking style. The Royal Canadian Air Farce skewered Brian Mulroney's oily good cheer, Joe Clarke's awkward laugh, and Preston Manning's Prairie whine.
Provincial and municipal politicians didn't escape. Toronto's David Crombie was the Tiny Perfect Mayor, Vancouver's Tom Campbell was Tom Terrific, Premier W.A.C. Bennett was Wacky and his son Bill was Mini-Wack. Premier Dave Barrett of the NDP poked fun at himself as "little fat Dave."
From jokes to statesmen
Comedy became a Canadian export, especially to the U.S. But somewhere in there, around the time of the McKenzie Brothers, we did start saying "sorry" when the politicians tromped on our toes. In interviews, journalists began to speak with excessive respect to prime ministers and their cabinet officers, as if the politicos were the bosses and not the servants. Mulroney, Clarke and Manning lived to become statesmen, not jokes.
Political ridicule began to be confined to editorial-page cartoonists and Rick Mercer. The CBC had been a major source of that ridicule, and by the time Chretien took power in 1993, the broadcaster's budget cuts were beginning to look like reprisal.
The result: the more ludicrous Canadian politics became, the more solemnly it was discussed. We were reduced to relying on the politicians themselves for gags. When the RCMP pepper-sprayed protesters at the University of British Columbia during an APEC meeting, Chretien knocked 'em dead with "As for me, I put pepper on my plate." I guess you had to be there.
The Liberals' civil wars, which should have launched a thousand gags, instead launched the dubious career of Paul Martin, who offered more cuts to the CBC and inspired nothing wittier than the epithet "Mr. Dithers."
At the same time, Canada's military became "heroes," to be spoken of in reverent tones and then discreetly forgotten. Careerist generals, who should have been flayed like losing hockey coaches, became sage propagandists for futile wars. Our veterans -- grandchildren of the wild colonial boys who took Vimy Ridge -- were left to deal alone with their PTSD and their high suicide rate.
Setting the stage for Harper
By 2006, Canadian politics featured sneers -- not laughter -- much less serious debate. The stage was set for Stephen Harper, the greatest deadpan comic of our time.
His admirers tell us Harper is a barrel of laughs in his office; in public, the best smile he can manage is a rictus sardonicus that frightens babies. He seems more comfortable in his Question Period passive-aggressive monotone, assuring Mr. Speaker that something irrelevant is in fact a reasonable answer to an opposition question.
Dulled by decades of solemnity, we no longer recognize comic genius when we see it. Stephen Harper is indeed a very funny man and he has recruited a troupe of comedians and comediennes who put the Royal Canadian Air Farce (and even the sainted Rick Mercer) to shame.
The slapstick is an old circus prop with which one clown whacks another clown's backside. The purpose of seltzer water is not to dilute a whisky but to be shot down the other guy's pants. The Funservative Party of Canada, under the direction of Stephen Harper, has been using such props against the NDP, the Liberals and all other opponents -- who seem to have no answer.
Fire or abuse loyal public servants like Atomic Energy of Canada head Linda Keen and diplomat Richard Colvin? Slapstick, against which a Turner Shield is of no avail! Appoint a long string of incompetent civil servants and MPs, from Arthur Porter to Mike Duffy? Seltzer down Canadians' pants!
The glory of becoming a punchline
Others in Harper's troupe have, like Bob Hope, mastered the art of delivering other people's gags (now called talking points). So Pierre Poilievre had us rolling in the aisles with: "The root cause of terrorism is terrorists." He and his Conservative colleagues have themselves become punchlines, like Paul Calandra and Dean Del Mastro.
At the end of a long day, relaxing in the Prime Minister's Office with his gag writers in short pants, Stephen Harper must wonder how long he can keep a straight face. For eight years he's been the guy with the boffo gags (Prorogation! StatsCan! Vic Toews! The F-35! Robocalls! Julian Fantino!) while seeing off a string of inept straight men like Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.
Now he faces two more boring straight men. Cutie-pie Justin Trudeau is a good boxer with great hair, but if his voice were any higher he'd be a boy soprano, and if his policies were any righter he'd be a Red Tory. The only response the NDP has to Harper's Conservatives is Paul Dewar's famous facepalm answer to Paul Calandra. Thomas Mulcair, who in Question Period can flense the blubber off Harper like a harpooned whale, should have apprenticed on the standup comedy circuit instead of with the Quebec Liberals.
It's going to be a very solemn 2015 indeed if the NDP and Liberals (and the media) don't lighten up and start giving the ridiculous Conservatives the ridicule they deserve for running this country into the ground for the past eight years. Yes, we'll have to laugh at ourselves as well for letting them get away with it. But if we don't laugh the Conservatives out of office, they'll have the last laugh -- at our expense.
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