We weren’t like this before. Ottawa-power chroniclers are emphatic: before Stephen Harper took over, even the roughest, most resourceful pistols in the PMO never lied.
We were effective, of course. We were UN-certified, cosmopolitan Machiavellians, respected troubleshooters and guardians of our model "Westminster" democracy. We were guileless and the country prospered. Indeed, by the time Harper got his hands on all that power we’d amassed in our capital, the art of lying had disappeared.
A little while before us, Canada’s politics weren’t so nice. The dangers of lying in politics weren’t ameliorated at our founding constitutional conferences. But it was alive in the shadows, as it was everywhere else, ever since that prehistoric bully recruited a magician to enthrall his tribe. Happily, in Ottawa, some 50 years ago, the icky business of lying became unnecessary. It fell into disuse and eventually we lost the knack.
Baseball fans like Lester Pearson and Ontario’s William Davis and their Red and Blue Machines impressed us with a striking made-in-Canada fact: in this gentle northern dominion, good government (with swelling treasuries) is good politics. The bad guys invariably were inept, distasteful, lost elections and were shunned.
Chronicler Stephen Lewis, a careful socialist who ended up working for Brian Mulroney at the UN, today moves crowds to their feet insisting that our national politics can be “civilized” again, when Harper’s out.
The PMO of good works can be restored.
Stephen Harper started out innocently enough as a young advisor to an innocent politician who took our appetite for honesty too far. Preston Manning didn’t catch the incumbent Liberal Prime Minister lying.
Rather, he disturbed Ottawa with simplistic ideas: "representative" means electing Senators; "representative" means every backbench knuckle-dragging fundamentalist should be free to speak freely in stone-cold sober conversations with press gallery journalists. “Balance” was, obviously, supposed to include balanced budgets.
Then, as now, he evoked the word “honesty” with the ease of an Alberta dissident.
Manning didn’t accept the Code of Conduct that senior political aids had been following for over a generation. Scott Reid outlined recently in the Ottawa Citizen the ploys that are permissible in an adult PMO: short of lying, you may “manipulate, prevaricate, avoid unpleasant truths, deflect, distract and dance a jig.”
Manning failed to beat the Liberals and, in failing, he corrupted Harper.
As a three-time election winner and Prime Minister, Harper will leave you fumbling in the dark if you don’t know the truth; and he doesn’t connect the dots for his enemies.
With a hard heart and a mind as quick as Pierre Trudeau’s (that most outspoken champion of our lie-free politics), it’s conceivable that Stephen Harper is not lying personally about Senator Mike Duffy. Conceivably, he didn’t worry that his brilliant Chief of Staff could be outsmarted by a self-indulgent broadcast journalist who never had to put the news in writing. Nevertheless, it is unlikely Harper ever fired a staffer for prevaricating.
However, influential Andrew Coyne, a columnist and CBC guest conservative with a heart a million miles from Alberta’s evangelical politics, simply damns all this as lying.
Stripping our PMO of those communication tools Scott Reid and the rest of us were permitted to use before Harper reinvented lying, of course, would make it impossible to run Ottawa on behalf of any interest other than status quo in Ottawa.
But, at least, once Harper’s gone, the lying will stop. People have short memories and the PMO will get back to being the light as well as the heart of our bruised union.