The piano man and the economic crisis

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This week, I toured the rebuilt, expanded Royal Conservatory of Music on Bloor Street in Toronto, between the new museum and the new Varsity Stadium. It's bright and busy, it hums (trills, rumbles, etc.). What a great tradition it has. Since 1886, it has pursued a mission of teaching and playing music across the country, breaking down distinctions between amateurs and pros, audience and performers. It built a system of grades and exams so widely dispersed it seems part of our cultural landscape, like Hockey Night in Canada. Stephen Harper has Grade 9 piano.

He talked about it last week in the wake of claims that he's insensitive to the arts. Peter Simon, the RCM president, says when he met the PM, the whole experience gushed out, as if little Stephen had just written his Grade 3 theory exam and hadn't quite nailed it. He still plays piano each day.

What I find striking is that he can't connect any of this to his politics. That event wasn't just about him taking piano and sweating a test; it existed due to a long national effort to create an institution that received public support and funding at crucial points. It's also notable that it's in the area of culture, where he seems utterly (sorry) tone deaf; but the point applies to all areas of nation-building in a vast, underpopulated place like this. The man is basically against big national initiatives — he's still a firewall guy at heart. When it comes to ambitious national projects, he only relates to two: the Arctic and Afghanistan, both far from where most Canadians live. One is military and the other, the Arctic, is quasi-military: It's about use it or lose it — and he doesn't mean losing the Arctic ice shelf.

His inability to think in a positive, passionate way about large political projects shows starkly at this tense economic moment. In policy, he prefers to act small. His favourite word is modest. "Our plan is simple, modest and practical," he said about a tax break for home buyers. As if he'd rather do nothing but, in a pinch, will settle for the least possible. His modest GST cuts give little relief, but they whittle government revenues down so he can claim we can't afford much anyway. This week, he announced a ban on tobacco ads, which are already banned, and sales to kids, ditto. I know this "modesty" reflects Stephen Harper's political philosophy and he could rattle on passionately about why government should do the least it can, for the good of us all. It's the reason he wants a majority: so he can do even less and eliminate more. But he may be the wrong leader at the wrong time.

Thirty years ago, people with views like his felt the wind of history at their backs. They said government was the problem, and clearing it out of the way of market forces the solution. (It took gobs of government action to get it out of the way, but that's another story.) The Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era was, they said, about dismantling all the public programs built up since the 1930s. I don't think that ever made a lot of sense, but it had a freshness. Now it seems stale and, what's worse, the results are in. Deregulation, for instance, gave us listeriosis here and subprime mortgages in the U.S.

The fresh new idea is active government! You can even say it out loud. It's Stephen Harper's misfortune to be seeking a majority when the hour of politics may have struck again. Bob Rae recently called him Herbert Hoover in a blue sweater. Herbert Hoover was a business-oriented president during the Great Depression. He responded with modest, inadequate actions that were then replaced by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which people like Stephen Harper are still working to inter. It would be ironic if another economic catastrophe hit like a hurricane and prevented them from completing the task.

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