Canadian voters of all progressive stripes should thank the gods of politics that our prime minister is such an uncongenial, unbending and self-righteous person. Just imagine the damage a dogmatic neo-liberal radical like Stephen Harper could do if he didn't frighten voters so badly, or if he had the capability of treating his nominal friends in the mainstream media with anything but arrogance and contempt.
Instead, this man is simply disagreeable. He utterly lacks a common touch. Most attempts to humanize him, short of covering old Beatles tunes, instantly fall flat.
One could not help thinking of this yesterday when the prime minister, reminiscent of Wiarton Willie on Groundhog Day, popped out of his slit trench just long enough to address his loyal caucus with the usual anodyne platitudes and then insultingly dismiss the gathered media. That done, he ducked back underground without addressing any of the pressing questions of the day.
With performances like this, it's no wonder the latest EKOS public opinion poll shows the prime minister and his misnamed Conservative Party plunging for the prairie like a CF-18 over Lethbridge. OK, that was hyperbolic. The poll indicates that the Conservatives' nationwide popularity dropped 3.5 per cent in a week. But sticking with flight analogies for a moment, if an Air Canada Airbus fell that far that fast, there'd be ambulances waiting on the tarmac!
Yeah, Harper got to be prime minister. But a sensible analysis of how this came about suggests it had more to do with former prime minister Paul Martin's mismanagement than the charmless Harper's particular political skill set.
Knowing how to deal with the media, and understanding that doing so is part of a politician's basic job description, is not a partisan quality, of course. Rare politicians of all parties have the magic touch, just as many more from all over the ideological spectrum do not.
Think of Martin's predecessor, Jean Chrétien, who was not exactly a failure as prime minister no matter what you may think of his policies. On a personal note, I will always remember fondly how Chrétien gently shooed away the big-shot reporters from Toronto so that he could do an interview "with my friend, Dave," the unknown reporter from a second-rate provincial newspaper. "I can talk to you guys any time," he explained to them. "I only get to speak with Dave today."
Yeah, it was all baloney, but it still makes me feel like I was 10-feet tall! I can't imagine Harper saying anything to the likes of me but "Get the hell out of my sight."
But the incumbent prime minister need not look outside his own party for examples of how to do the essential job of managing the media. Consider Ralph Klein, premier of Alberta for 14 years to the day.
Klein had many faults. Some of his policy ideas were catastrophic -- Albertans are still paying for his irresponsible decisions on the health care file, including destroying desperately needed medical facilities. Others were plain weird -- who can forget the $400 "prosperity bonus" cheque we Albertans all received in September 2005?
But Klein rarely met a voter he didn't like -- when he was sober, anyway. And above all, he knew how to deal with the media. Rain or shine, when the Alberta Legislature was sitting, Klein met the members of the press gallery in the Legislative rotunda every afternoon at 3 o'clock and answered whatever questions they threw at him.
Klein didn't always like it, but he always did it, usually with a smile on his face. Like Chrétien -- and unlike Harper -- Klein enjoyed successive majority governments.
What's more, as the polls of the day illustrated, Alberta's voters never tired of him. It was bored members of his own Conservative party who grew weary of Klein and effectively turfed him in March 2006 -- a decision they no doubt have come to rue.
If yesterday's EKOS poll is accurate -- and with a decline that steep and swift you've got to wonder a little -- Prime Minister Harper won't be long for his job, short of a perpetual Parliamentary prorogation, anyway.
And if our scowling prime minister leaves office any time soon, we can all heave a sigh of relief (including, one suspects, many members of his own Parliamentary caucus). After all, as the late prime minister John Diefenbaker tried to persuade Canadians, now and then Progressive may even fit with Conservative!
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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