[Editor’s note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]
Dear Dr. Steve,
The fallout from the introduction of former Waffen-SS soldier Yaroslav Hunka in the House of Commons has been considerable. Who is to blame for all this?
There are lessons to be learned from this debacle. Here are the main ones:
- Don’t invite former Nazi soldiers to your place of business.
- In case rule number 1 is flouted: Do not applaud.
This affair is not a whodunit. Speaker Anthony Rota has resigned over his decision to invite and introduce Hunka to the Commons. Former chief of protocol Roy Norton, now at the University of Waterloo, told CBC’s Power & Politics that government would have “zero role” in inviting Hunka. “The Speaker is supreme in Parliament,” he said. “As chief of protocol, if I had asked the Speaker... for a list of who had been invited to come and sit in the seats of Parliament, I would have been told to take a hike.”
It was the Speaker’s responsibility, and he fell on his sword as a result. It has been argued that Trudeau was slow to issue an apology, which one does in politics even when, as in this case, he would also have had to apologize if he had interfered with the Speaker’s prerogatives.
There was no apology from Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre, however, despite the fact that he initially responded by clouding the issue with falsehoods. On Sept. 24, Poilievre tweeted: “It has come out today that Justin Trudeau personally met with and honoured a veteran of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (a Nazi division).” Poilievre’s tweet linked to a story that said no such thing. There is no evidence such a meeting ever happened.
Poilievre’s claim appears to be, as they used to say on the farm, horse hockey. “Trudeau must apologize,” Poilievre tweeted repeatedly. But as Canada suffered from a major international embarrassment, Trudeau wasn’t the one trying to make it all worse by repeating unfounded stories. The Conservatives have been giving Poilievre an expensive PR makeover but it will never work. There is no cure for rabies.
This is one of the lessons Dr. Steve draws from this event — the fact that people will seize upon any opportunity, however inappropriate, to reveal themselves. Just look at BC Conservative Leader John Rustad, who chose the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to issue a tweet reading “Today, we remember what happens when the Canadian government thinks it’s better at raising children than parents,” a thinly veiled reference to Rustad’s campaign to ensure parents are consulted about the preferred pronouns of trans kids.
Dr. Steve certainly acknowledges that different positions can be taken on that issue. However, turning the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation into a hobby horse for an unrelated political fight appears to Dr. Steve as rather despicable.
There is another lesson Dr. Steve takes from the House Nazi affair, though, a lesson he spends many a sad hour contemplating — the fact that so much of our politics turns on the irrelevant. Trudeau is getting bashed over this affair largely because he’s there. Political fortunes are as changeable as the weather and often have just as much to do with it.
A study reported by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2010 says that the performance of sports teams can affect the popularity of political leaders. Fans of college football and basketball rated governing politicians higher after their favourite teams won. (Between the Canucks, Lions and Whitecaps, it is remarkable that any B.C. politician has ever gotten re-elected to anything.)
Dr. Steve believes this phenomenon holds true even with issues widely considered legitimate. What moves the needle in political polls? Gas prices. Housing prices. These days every political leader gets bashed over inflation.
But every industrial country is suffering from it. Either international governments are all equally incompetent (and political opposition parties all equally wise) or inflation is a global problem. When you’re pissed off about something, it is satisfying to lay blame and far less satisfying to contemplate that Pierre Poilievre could no more tame inflation and bring down housing prices than he could improve the Canucks’ penalty-killing.
While there are arguably actions that governments can take to rein in those issues, or ameliorate their harmful effects, for the most part it is beyond the powers of government to meaningfully affect their course. And yet, these are the issues that often decide elections. Historically, leaders have sometimes been blamed for natural disasters — Chinese emperors were believed to have lost the “mandate of heaven.” We think ourselves wiser now, but are we?
Our leaders are targets for general grievance. More asshole drivers in traffic today? Stubbed your toe and dropped the toast peanut butter side down? Cat coughed up a hairball on the bedspread? It’s the goddamn government.
Stay in power long enough, and general dissatisfaction will gradually drift up in your doorway until you are six feet under. The Hunka incident was a major screw-up, and apparently somebody’s got to pay. But there’s still hope for Liberals. It all depends on how the Blue Jays do this week.
Read more: Federal Politics