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By-elections, asbestos, royalty and 'islamicism'

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Just as the technique of politicians is often to fake sincerity, so the skill of the pundit is to fake intelligence. Whether through a newspaper column or TV panel, the bloviating pundit offers up insights that ordinary folks lack. It's a great gig if you can get away with it.

But what happens when pundits can't even pretend to have a clue about what's going on? It's been a hallmark of Stephen Harper's reign that we keep meeting this kind of embarrassing problem, threatening the very existence of the commentariat as a class. Think of the fiasco over the long-form census, which the Prime Minister invented though it never had a soupcon of sense about it. Neither ideology nor politics seemed at play. The punditocracy, like real people, were bamboozled.

It's happening again, big time.

Where are the "think" pieces explaining the PM's failure to call a speedy by-election in Toronto-Danforth riding to elect a replacement for Jack Layton? Mr. Harper could not have been more generous to Mr. Layton's memory in the week after his death, even standing and awkwardly applauding when Stephen Lewis called his final letter a manifesto for social democracy. But where's the generosity of spirit that Mr. Layton represented when it comes to a by-election to fill his empty seat, giving the citizens of that riding a voice in parliament again? And don't tell me Mr. Harper is afraid another NDPer will be elected. Of course that will happen, and frankly, my dear, the PM doesn't give a damn. So why no call? Nobody knows. Nobody has anything insightful to say. The pundits are silenced.

Take another example. Stephen Harper has just declared that the greatest security threat to Canada is something he called "Islamicism." I've seen no sensible dissection of this remarkable comment because no one can make sense of it. It goes without saying that vigilance against any potential terrorist attack is vital. Has some new peril now been discovered that no one else knows about? Are Canadians in imminent danger? Might we not be fretful about a nice homegrown Christian version of Norway's notorious Anders Breivik as well as extremist Muslims? Why does our leader choose to feed into the bigotry of those who are determined to smear all Muslims as terrorists?

In terms of what really menaces Canadians, is "Islamicism" really scarier than global warming? What is it about these conservatives that make them care so little about their kids' future? What about water scarcity, a looming crisis? Or the fragility of the global economic system? Youth unemployment? What about the bottomless need everywhere in Canada for new or repaired or upgraded infrastructure? Who's going to protect us from exploding road rage on our gridlocked roads? What about glaring, growing inequality and our declining quality of life?

As for more of the impenetrable Mr. Harper, take his bold march into Canada's colonial past by putting the "royal" back in the name of two of our armed forces and the Queen's picture on the walls of our embassies. Talk about an inscrutable manufactured crisis and fixing something when it ain't broke.

Don't tell me this was playing to the Conservative base, the handy-dandy answer when we pundits have nothing sensible to say. I gather all of 6,000 people roused themselves to sign an online petition to insert "royal" into the forces' names; even the Blue Jays attract larger numbers. Not a single person currently serving in our forces -- all of whom we praise to the skies -- has ever served with "royal" in their names, which seems not to have undermined morale very much. So what brilliant strategic purpose can this conceivably be about?

As for hanging the dear old Queen's picture in our embassies abroad -- will she be astride a moose? -- the best line came from NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar: "We don't have a minister of foreign affairs, we have a minister of interior decorating." Or, you could say, a royal pain in the butt.

Then there's the never-ending scandal of exporting Canadian asbestos to poor countries where it will certainly kill poor labourers. It's an issue in which the Harper government stands virtually alone in the western world, and no one can fathom why. Asbestos touches directly only one seat in Quebec. Can that possibly explain Mr. Harper's stance? His government has been harshly condemned by every health agency that exists, both in Canada and around the world. What possible benefit can outweigh this blow to Canada's reputation, let alone the untold suffering the Prime Minister's stand will cause?

Taking the heat at the moment for her boss's incomprehensible intransigence is newly elected Conservative MP Kelly Leitch. Ms. Leitch is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. (Why a youngish specialist wants to trade her precious skills for politics is another question.) Ms. Leitch has now been directly targeted by 250 fellow medical colleagues who wrote to remind her that she's taken an oath to do no harm, and by 40 Canadians who personally lost family members to asbestos.

The swiftness of Dr. Leitch's descent into the pit of moral corruption vindicates the most cynical critics of Canadian politics. It's at the very opposite pole from the optimism that Mr. Layton generated only days ago. Not only hasn't she bothered to answer either letter. She's also faithfully peddling Mr. Harper's deceitful spin on his asbestos policy word for word. As she told an online outlet in her riding, her government will keep supporting the safe use of asbestos, which she knows doesn't exist, and it's the buyers' choice to purchase our asbestos. Goodbye Dr. Leitch, highly-regarded medical specialist for children, now a pariah among her medical peers; hello MP Leitch, just another Tory who makes you despair for the future of Canadian politics.

Such curious developments leave even the most verbose pundit speechless.

This article was first published in The Globe and Mail.

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