(Phil here, having another look at this column dating back to January, 2015 before posting it on Finding Hope Ness. I guess it wasn’t such a “masterful stroke of political choreography” after all. Premier Wynne actively supported Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau in the long election campaign that began in August and ended Oct. 19 with the Liberal majority-government victory. There were lots of reasons. But something must have happened here that bothered the Ontario Premier big-time. Or maybe it was just that Harper’s body language, as I suggested, was too obvious. After all it’s possible, I think, that the biggest factor in his election defeat was people were starting to question what was behind the mask. That and the NDP leaving an opening in their platform big enough to drive a Liberal truck through.)
The body language said it all:
The Prime Minister of Canada, and the Premier of Ontario, the country’s most populous and, shall we say, most vote-rich province in the country in this election year had just finished their first face-to-face meeting in more than a year.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper had apparently been giving Premier Kathleen Wynne the cold shoulder ever since she said afterwards he “kind of smirked” when at their first meeting she talked about the need for Canada Pension Plan improvements. That quickly got a bad reaction and a denial from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Harper smirk? Certainly not.
But as of the stroke of Midnight a week ago today we officially entered 2015, a federal election year. The official date for the election to be held is no later than Oct. 19. But the Prime Minister of Canada has the power to call call it for an earlier date if he thinks it might be a good idea, for whatever reason, like he’s up in the polls, or suspended former Conservative Mike Duffy’s trial is set to begin in April, or there’s no telling yet how badly the collapse in oil prices will affect the Canadian economy – or maybe after all because he deems an early election to be in the best interests of the country. Many usually well-informed commentators are already starting to read the tea leaves, and suspect an early election is looking like a pretty good bet.
My guess is they already know something’s cooking.
Harper hit the ground running into the New Year and a possible early election when he gave the green light to his people to make certain quiet overtures to Premier Wynne’s people: the Prime Minister was going to be in Toronto for the Gold Medal Game the coming Tuesday evening so, you know, maybe something could be arranged.
By Friday night Canada’s win over the U.S. Team virtually sealed its place in the championship game, against Russia, as it turned out. Perfect. Harper, a published hockey enthusiast, would definitely be there, had to be there.
A cynic might suggest it was perfect in another respect, in that attendance at the game meant it wasn’t a trip to Toronto just to meet with Wynne; in other words it wasn’t that important in its own right.
I’m also still mischievous enough to imagine the discussion in the Prime Minister’s Office that subsequently transpired:
“So what’s the deal?”
“Well, you’ve got really good seats of course, in all respects.”
“That’s good. But I meant what’s the deal with Wynne?”
“It’s perfect. Pretty well everything you wanted: no fanfare, nothing fancy. Just you and her at a small table, but not too small, if you know what I mean.”
“He means you don’t have to get too cozy, sir.”
Thatr person, a relative newby, expects laughs all ’round; but instead the comment is met with a stony, uneasy silence. He feels a strange chill come over him. He has a weird thought, about there being a trap door under his chair that’s liable to open at any moment, ejecting him into space where he will wander the Cosmos, alone and forgotten for an indefinite period of time, perhaps forever.
He looks across the room at the PM. He’s looking right at him, smiling that peculiar, inscrutable smile-that’s-not-really-a smile. Who knows what he’s really feeling, or thinking?
“Well, anyway,” somebody else says mercifully, to move the moment on, “the meeting will start at 6:30 and will end half-an-hour later. We have prepared some material on the talking points you suggested.
“The meeting is still a secret, but it’s expected the news media will catch wind of it shortly before it happens. There will be no joint statement. She will hold a press conference later to say, yes indeed, the long-awaited meeting with you has indeed happened, and a “connection” has been established. She will say the two of you have agreed to work together in the future on such things as infrastructure improvement, resource development, and better drinking water for First Nation communities.
“The media won’t be in the room, but we’ll have a few visuals for them when they come calling. They will simply show you and the Premier of Ontario seated at the same table, with documents at hand. It will look like a working meeting.
“You will both be wearing gray suits. Your jacket will be open, hers will be buttoned up.”
“Nice touch,” Harper says, with an actual smile, if a bit condescending, “I am subconsciously seen as being more open than her. Clever. Good for you.”
The young aide beams. He has been the recipient of rare approval. The news will spread like envious wild fire in the PMO. He continues:
“You will not be wearing a tie. Then you go to the big game.”
“Good. That’s all good,” Harper says rising from his chair. The meeting is over.
I saw the visuals the Prime Minister’s office provided after the meeting. They showed the Premier of Ontario and the Prime Minister of Canada seated at a table with a white tablecloth. They were both smiling broadly at each other. It looks like Prime Minister Harper was even laughing.
The thing though that struck me the most was the body language, how both were inclined back away from each other, especially Harper away from Wynne. There was no leaning in, no reaching out to shake hands or otherwise signal the sincerity of their new “connection” with some sort gesture of trust.
The body language said it all, depending on who was watching. A cynic might sway it was a masterful piece of political choreography in this election year, sooner or later.
Originally published in The Sun Times January, 2015.