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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Why underage drinking at 24 Sussex Drive is no joke for the Harper Government

| April 25, 2014
Image: flickr/ncc-ccn

The National Post wants Canadians to smarten up and pay attention: Everybody drinks too much, OK? Even our reporters! So shut up about that 24 Sussex Drive binge drinking thing, or whatever it was. Probably nothing. Got that?

According to an article of 600 or so words swiftly published yesterday by Post writer Matt Gurney, news that an underage drinker, female in gender, had been hauled away in an ambulance from the prime ministerial residence in Ottawa suffering from alcohol poisoning is no big deal, and certainly not a scandal.

As is now well known, an 18th birthday party at the prominent Ottawa address was under way at the time for Ben Harper, not the popular songwriter of the same name, but the son of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Laureen Harper. The legal drinking age in the province of Ontario -- where, for those of you who missed it, Ottawa is located -- is 19. Serving alcohol to persons under that age is illegal. And the Mounties who provide security at that address figure none of this is any of their business.

Now, Gurney's article, which was published with a photograph of a group of young men, obviously not the sort who would be invited to the Harper residence, drinking to excess, appeared to be a swift and witty rendering of the Conservative Party of Canada talking points on the incident. In the piece, the age of the person who drank too much is merely reportedly 18 and her condition only perhaps as bad as described. It goes on to outline quite humourously the reasons we should all conclude this event was certainly not a scandal, and really not much of anything at all.

These include, in the approximate order they appear:

-    When he was Ben Harper’s age, Gurney went to house parties and sometimes drank too much

-    The worst most had to deal with were throbbing heads, although a lamp was broken

-    The children of prime ministers should get the same leeway as other kids (in all regards expect police attention, presumably)

-    Canadian media has traditionally ignored personal problems among powerful people, and this is as it should be

-    The RCMP were right not to “rat out” young Harper because they need him to trust them

-    The house party in question was "fairly typical"

-    "It's not clear any laws were broken here" -- say what?

-    The ambulance call was "an aberration"

-    And, "if this is the worst scandal to ever befall the Harpers, I'd say they're doing OK."

Clearly the hope of the Harper Family, the CPC, and the people who call the shots in the national media (as represented by Gurney's employers at the National Post) is that this little bump in the road should immediately be forgotten by the rest of us.

Here's the thing, though, laugh it off as they might, it won’t be forgotten. It will fester.

But the reason has nothing to do with the typical behaviour of young people on a bender, or what National Post reporters or former Globe and Mail reporters who now write blogs on Alberta politics did in their misspent but obviously enjoyable youths.

It doesn't even have anything to do with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's past smoking habits or Gurney's opinion that "good bodyguards need to employ a degree of discretion."

No, there are two key reasons that the public, especially parents of young adults whom they love and worry about, will remember this one:

1)    Canadians don't like entitlement -- and getting away with openly illegal behaviour without paying the price the rest of our children would have to pay in the same circumstances because someone's dad is a powerful man is a textbook example of entitlement.

2)    It's easy to understand what happened because, as Gurney argued to dismiss it, it happens to so many people.

It's not the big, technical, complicated wrongs that stick in people's minds -- prorogation to defy the will of Parliament and stay in power or the details of the Elections Act, for example.

It's the simple things we all instinctively understand -- like taking your kid and her friend on a free airplane ride and letting the taxpayers pay for it.

And, as we have just seen in Alberta, when ordinary citizens get riled up about stuff like that, there is hell to pay.

So it's said here this little incident -- and, more important, the way it is being brushed off as no big deal by big shots, Conservative politicians and the media -- has the potential do more harm to the Harper Government than scandals in the Senate, unfair elections acts and unpopular pipelines galore.

Privileged kids. Powerful dads. Tame cops. Contempt for the rules. It's all pretty easy to understand.

That's why the National Post is working so hard to laugh it off.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

Image: flickr/ncc-ccn

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