Well, now, that was different. And really quite refreshing.
As if any additional evidence was needed that the momentum in Canadian politics is shifting from Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals to the Stephen Harper Conservatives, the prime minister put on a little show at the National Arts Centre Saturday night, with a little help from his friends: the NAC orchestra, guest artist Yo-Yo Ma, and the Ottawa-based Celtic band Herringbone. There was likely also a little arm-twisting involved, courtesy of Harper’s spouse, Laureen, who was honorary chairwoman of the NAC gala to benefit Canada’s next generation of young artists.
As Ignatieff and his party continue their search for a salable rationale to bring down the Tories and send Canadians back to the polls, Harper continues his remarkable climb back from the political guillotine last November. The prime minister’s rendition of the Beatles’ 1967 hit With a Little Help From My Friends was a communications master stroke, putting him in the national spotlight at the kind of function he derided only a year ago as the domain of elites who don’t understand the issues facing ordinary working people.
An off-key performance would have spelled political disaster. But Harper, dressed casually and exhibiting his trademark emotionless nonchalance, carried it off remarkably well, his backup musicians nicely covering the song’s highest notes.
It’s fascinating to watch the continuing Harper metamorphosis. When he arrived in Ottawa, he was a Western populist and idealogue determined to radically reduce the national debt, abolish the Senate, repel gay marriage, build a strong economy and preside over a Conservative majority. He has become a Canadian nationalist and pragmatist, restrained by successive minority governments, who has presided over the biggest recession in decades, introduced unprecedented levels of deficit spending, appointed more than a dozen senators to the chamber he used to loathe, and reconciled himself to the reality of gay unions. He has cast off grassroots populism in favour of iron-clad party discipline to control his caucus. Yet he is also managing to reform his own image — slowly, incrementally — from “scary” automaton to a more human, pliant, even at times avuncular, authority figure.
Ignatieff’s Liberals, meanwhile, having emerged from their summer caucus meeting in northern Ontario vowing to bring down the government at the earliest opportunity, are beset by internal discord and the prospect of a Conservative government that, along with an improving economy, is rising in the opinion polls.
This weekend, Ignatieff is in Quebec City to try to mend the rift in his Quebec wing. Harper, meanwhile, playfully tickles the ivories in Ottawa, revealing yet another side of himself to Canadians. He stays on key. For now, at least, it’s advantage: Harper.