Politics means being careful about how you say sorry

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 6, 2008

In politics, competitive advantage is mostly a matter of incumbency. And incumbency is never more advantageous to a government than during the summer. For three months the government actually gets to govern, virtually without opposition. While the House is out, the government is in.

There is no daily question period, no co-ordinated drive-by shootings in the media - just photo-ops to be arranged, and announcements to be made.

The opposition leaders are out on the barbecue circuit, grateful for any coverage they can get in the regional media. The national media still run, but not as a pack. In terms of getting out a message, it's a time for the prime minister to speak over the heads of the media, as Pierre Trudeau famously said, "to the people of this land."

On a prime minister's calendar, this time is known as "summer tour," generally planned months in advance, usually beginning with St. Jean Baptiste and Canada Day celebrations, not to forget the optics of the annual G8 summit. The summer of 2008 has brought bonus events for Stephen Harper with Quebec City's 400th anniversary and British Columbia's 150th. Then there's the mid-summer ritual of the national caucus, which the governing Conservatives held last week in LÚvis.

For Stephen Harper, summer tour means occasional travel with his children, and humanizing photo ops of the prime minister stepping down from his Challenger, as he did in Quebec City last week, in the company of his children, Ben and Rachel.

The prime minister also gets to make announcements, as he did yesterday at the gates of Banff National Park in Alberta, using the spectacular backdrop off the Rockies to announce the completion of the twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway to the B.C. border. Did someone neglect to mention that Banff, Canada's first national park, was created by a Conservative prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, the founding father himself, back in 1885?

Sometimes, being prime minister even means getting to say you're sorry, as Harper did the other day on behalf of Canada to South Asians, regarding a shipload of would-be immigrants turned back from Vancouver harbour in 1914.

Is there any group of aggrieved immigrants that Canada hasn't yet apologized to? Step right up, folks, and Jason Kenney, the minister responsible for multiculturalism, will take your number, and attend your banquet.

Of course, not all ethnic communities, and not all apologies, are created equal.

Harper's apology was deemed to be inadequate by leaders of the Indo-Canadian community on the West Coast because it was delivered in a park, rather than Parliament. Maninder Gill, a community voice who has a microphone called Radio India, pointed out, according to a news report that ran across the country, that Ottawa "has apologized to the Chinese, First Nations and Japanese in Parliament. This is not fair to the whole Indo-Canadian community."

Not to understate the point, he added: "Now the community feels it's like 1914 on the boat all over again."

It could be that, with this incident, the currency of apologies has been seriously devalued.

While these comments were circulating, Harper was photographed eating strawberry shortcake on the lawn of the B.C. legislature. Thus, his indifference to the plight of Indo-Canadians, and an event that occurred almost a century ago. Let them eat cake.

This is what happens when an event goes sideways. Someone forgot to lock up the third-party endorsements. Or someone, likely Jason Kenney, thought he had the endorsements in his pocket, and got double-crossed. It happens all the time in the treacherous world of multicultural politics.

This is the kind of thing that puts multicultural funding in jeopardy, especially when an angry prime minister demands to know who screwed up an event he probably didn't want to do in the first place.

And people wonder why Harper is a control freak.

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