Stephen Harper has started out on his summer-long effort to connect with the Canadian electorate, starting off by opening the annual Dragon Boat festival in Toronto. He engaged in banter with the friendly crowd, asking for a rescue if he jumped into the lake to cool off, but his choice of apparel — a business suit, sans tie — looked a bit out of place and uncomfortable, an unfortunate allegory to his last few weeks in the Commons:
Tory Leader Stephen Harper continued his image makeover tour Saturday after an embarrassing week that saw his party ambushed on a budget bill it had promised to defeat.
Mr. Harper helped launch Toronto’s International Dragon Boat Race Festival by cracking jokes about a quick rescue if he were to leap into Lake Ontario to escape the stifling heat. …
The embattled leader, who plans to hit the barbeque and festival circuit this summer in an effort to lighten his staid image, wore a suit but left the tie at home and unbuttoned the collar of his dress shirt. He was all smiles throughout the appearance and and admitted he maybe should have dressed down for the sweltering heat.
Mr. Harper was warmly received by the crowd on Centre Island in Toronto’s harbour and briefly manned a barrel-sized drum leading the dramatic dancing parade that opened the festival.
Harper came under some criticism for skipping the Toronto Gay Pride parade, an understandable scheduling decision given Harper’s opposition to the upcoming gender-neutral marriage bill that now is widely expected to pass. He showed that while he wants to get out and give people reasons to open up to the Tories and vote for them, it won’t be by pretending to be who he’s not — a rather apt analogy to the Gay Pride festivities, if one considers it for a moment. Harper did so without denigrating or even referencing it, a wise choice on his part.
However, less wise was his answer to reporters immediately after the race of the shenanigans that accompanied last week’s vote in the Commons on C-48, in which Harper had held out hope for a confidence vote that could topple the Liberals. He attacked the other parties as “unprincipled” and denied that his leadership had any role in his defeat. He then made this statement, which will probably come back to haunt him in his tour:
“Canadians are going to be concerned to see the government having a deal with the socialists and the separatists,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the kind of coalition the public voted for.”
Given that Harper himself aligned with the “separatists” of Bloc Quebecois for most of the past two months, that seems like a rather cynical and self-serving excuse. Harper gave that opening to NDP Jack Layton, who quipped that Canadians expected their MPs to be in their seats, ready to vote. Harper should think about being magnanimous at this point, as these recriminatory statements will only serve to create barriers later on and reinforce the notion that the Tories represent a negative force in Canadian politics. He needs to present the positive image of change and reform, and remind Canada why it needs both and why the Liberals cannot deliver either.
Polling shows that Canadians have a trust issue with Harper. As I suggested earlier, Harper would be well served to research and adopt the self-effacing and open style of Ronald Reagan and learn to react more graciously in defeat. Voters will not trust a politician who cannot truthfully acknowledge setbacks and who make a habit of dodging responsibility for them. It’s early in his summer campaign, so he has time to learn, but he should start now.