Photo ops in Pangnirtung: That's the plan?
Let me cite three telling examples: "PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER ANNOUNCES CONSTRUCTION OF NEW SMALL CRAFT HARBOUR IN PANGNIRTUNG"; "PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER LAUNCHES NEW REGIONAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AGENCY FOR CANADA'S NORTH"; and "PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER LAUNCHES NEW ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AGENCY FOR SOUTHERN ONTARIO."
Do only ideological purists object when the Conservative Party, headed by an ex-libertarian, thinks the prime minister should not merely interest himself in but fund and announce the construction of a dock in the Arctic? But government, of any stripe, is overstretched if such matters occupy the time and attention of the guy or gal at the top. I think it's also worth debating whether a new regional economic development agency could possibly play a meaningful role in the long-term economic development of Canada's North. And whether this one is likely to have the appropriate structure and philosophy when the same government that created it had, five days earlier, announced a similar body for Southern Ontario.
Who, I ask, is meant to provide the money to help struggling Toronto find prosperity? And what dazzling new approaches to effective wealth creation will this agency unveil to a region that, throughout our history, has done little besides lead one of the world's most productive nations in a few minor areas like finance, manufacturing and services?
The press release said the prime minister babbled, "This is a region with distinct needs, and the people of Southern Ontario deserve economic programs delivered in ways specifically tailored to their own priorities. FedDev Ontario is one more tool to ensure that workers and businesses in Southern Ontario have the resources they need to succeed."
OK, it's probably just more of the boilerplate press-release writers put in the mouths of people who, whatever their sins, never actually said such nonsense, rhetoric that neither means anything nor tries to. I realize the government subjects us to a thunderous, almost automated barrage of such self-congratulatory sludge; it is not unusual to get four a day on Canada's Economic Action Plan alone, a surprising number specifically crediting the PM. And it can seem both trivial and off-putting to be told that Harper's tour of the Yukon Energy Project site is a "Photo opportunity only," in which we may depict but not speak to him.
Trying hard to be fair, I grant a photo op heads-up is useful to the press. And when the PMO distributes its own photos of the boss in remote places it smacks of vainglorious flattery but saves us the time and expense of getting to places like Pangnirtung which probably don't have a convenient Starbucks. Sometimes they even save us the trouble of taking our own unflattering shots of Mr. Harper's belly.
Besides, even a PMO picture can be worth a few hundred words.
For instance, the Aug. 20 one tagged "Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl visit the community's small craft harbour." It's a revealing shot of rugged-looking boats on a Pangnirtung tidal flat, with Strahl looking ready to get behind the wheel of one of those babies and Harper looking like an unusually plump model in outdoor clothes he'd never otherwise wear trying in vain to stand in a natural pose next to a real working man's boat with two big shiny outboard motors.
What most struck me was that a lot of the boats had two engines. I take it the locals are firmly persuaded the waters off Pangnirtung are no place to have your only motor conk out. And who am I to argue? Or tell them where or how to build their docks? Then again, who is Stephen Harper to do it? At least I've spent a lot of time driving boats, mostly not into rocks.
Even a photo op consumes the time and attention of the person involved. As for an economic action plan that apparently depends on the notion that not a sparrow gets a job in Canada, from Pangnirtung to Toronto, without a strategic government initiative, it absorbs enormous quantities of mental effort as well as money, even if flacks do most of the appalling writing.
Government can't do everything, and when it thinks it not only can but must, it's a certain and ominous warning that it won't be devoting enough time, money or attention to the things it actually can and should do.
An economic development agency for Southern Ontario? What rubbish.
[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]