Time for Ottawa to listen to Canadians

I’ve been thinking a lot about perceptions recently, prompted by all the media brouhaha about the forthcoming federal election and the exorbitant costs involved in a campaign that most people see as much too long.

That single, public perception, that the campaign is being needlessly drawn out for political purposes, can do our current federal government little good, and yet no one in Ottawa seems to care what ordinary Canadians think. And that suggests to me, in turn, that it’s high time someone up there in the rarified heights of government took a careful look around at their so-called expert communications staff and started making notes and taking names.

I say that because it is self-evident to me that perceptions—the ways in which ordinary people perceive and interpret things like images and events—are an astoundingly powerful tool, and in the hands of gifted (but not necessarily sane or principled) strategists, they are often used to influence and manipulate entire populations, all too frequently with no bearing upon either truth or accuracy. I remember how Joseph Stalin, one of the most bloodthirsty monsters of the Twentieth Century, was known familiarly, and amiably, as “Uncle Joe” to people in Britain at the end of WWII. His official image portrayed him as a beaming, good-natured family member with a bushy mustache—a far cry from the ruthlessly paranoid mass-murderer he really was, slaughtering millions of his own people to satisfy his twisted personal whims. But no one in Britain then suspected the truth. They accepted the image, the perception, presented to them.

Stalin is only one of the names that come to mind when you start thinking about the image-building used to promote tyrants and tyrannical regimes. The names come effortlessly, a Who’s Who of terror and horror: Hitler, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein; Idi Amin; Ayatollah Khomeini; Mao Tse Tung; Kim Jong-un. And those are only a few of the recent, contemporary ones, megalomaniacal “fathers” of their respective nations, all lionized and propagandized by the judicious manipulation of perceptions.

So I have to ask myself, “What’s happened to Canada’s perceptionists, the propaganda experts? Where are they?”

It quickly becomes clear, to anyone who cocks an ear to listen, that Canadians in general are disenchanted with their current crop of politicians, and that a rapidly increasing majority is less than happy with Mr. Harper and the domineering power of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Office that represents him to Canadians. People everywhere are discussing his poor fiscal performance and budgetary shortcomings; they’re talking about his lack of personality, his aloofness, his micro management of every aspect of what the current government does; you hear frequent mention of his arrogance, his intolerance, his detestation of the media, his disdain for parliamentary process and his general determination to remake Canada, and Canadians, in his own lacklustre, humourless, ultraconservative image. And sometimes, in the most unexpected places, you’ll even hear people disparaging his personal appearance. Were I involved in Mr. Harper’s campaign, I would be tempted to run and hide, because in terms of overall perceptions it is a public relations nightmare.

But then, just when you think nothing could get worse, comes a media report on how a public servant in Ottawa, a 19-year veteran of Environment Canada, has been suspended (with pay, be it noted,) on a violation of ethics charge for writing a scathing song about our Prime Minister. A protest song…

So speaking of perceptions, could, or should, anyone perceive a direct attack, somewhere in there, upon freedom of speech and the right to express an unpopular opinion? The Canadian perception used to be that you could write, say, or sing, anything you wanted to without fear of reprisal, providing you did  not endanger public safety when you did it. But the message in this man’s suspension is that things have changed radically, and everyone is now being encouraged to perceive that you risk losing your job, your livelihood and your career if you dare express any kind of disapproval of our Prime Minister.

How could anyone in government permit such a blatant, appalling gaffe to happen? Is there no one in the PMO, or in the Conservative Party’s PR office, with a functioning brain? Why wasn’t the disgruntled singer returned to work immediately upon this fiasco coming to light, in an attempt to salvage a disastrous situation? And why wasn’t the twit who suspended him fired instantly, on grounds of consummate stupidity? Or am I missing the point altogether? Are we, in fact, being instructed to believe that it is genuinely dangerous to criticize Stephen Harper?

I’m talking about perceptions here—appearances—and none of what I have said above has anything to do with my personal political beliefs, but if any of our current would-be leaders really wants my vote, he’d better show me, soon, that he cares about what I believe, as a citizen.