Something fishy in our politics

It is small consolation that they haven't forgotten me. I returned from vacation and was instantly plunged into gloom by 435 e-mail messages, most implying that I was depraved, stupid or both. Outside the window I saw Liberal election signs that somehow conveyed a not entirely dissimilar message. So I had managed to get away from it all but it didn't get better in my absence. At the risk of seeming positively Clarksonian, I confess that I have been in the tropics, chugging around in a little rented houseboat and snorkeling with the fishes. To my mind our finny friends are doing better than the politicians. I didn't wear shoes, get e-mail or receive a phone call for an entire week and didn't miss any of them. Then I got back to grey skies, foul-mouthed pop stars and unbridled, if inept, political ambition. I wasn't glad.

It's so peaceful drifting lazily over the seabed, occasionally fighting to keep from being swept onto sharp rocks, fire coral or possibly a scorpionfish by pounding waves, then finding you can't get back through the little gap out through which you glided with ease because Mr. Tide is much stronger than he seemed. True, life and limb may be in peril but it's all so straightforward and under your own control. Only you and your brother-in-law can run the boat onto a sandbank, mistake north for east-south-west or fall overboard trying to snare the mooring buoy.

The dazzling underwater world takes your mind right off current events. Tropical fish come in amazing varieties: hog, clown, and many shapes, sizes and colours of parrot, to say nothing of the guide book's "oddly shaped bottom dwellers;" what is there here to remind you of politics? Other, I mean, than rumours of a deep hole with sharks lurking in it?

We investigated another deep hole through which, an overly excited acquaintance had claimed, snorklers could be sucked to their death and eventually disgorged, barely recognizable, into the Atlantic. But at least it wasn't sucking in tax dollars and disgorging them, barely recognizable, into Quebec. Besides, I would have had to commit an act of personal stupidity to be converted into ocean nutrients. Cushion star fish, however numerous, cannot elect Liberals to take my tax dollars.

The ocean is honest, too. The "donkey dung" sea cucumber turns out not to be nearly as uncommon as one guidebook claimed. But the name is no mystery once you've (ugh) seen it. And when they call it "fire coral" I do not wonder if it's a holiday camp. Whereas when they call it Human Resources Development Canada I wonder what human resource they even think they have developed.

Some alert readers may be tempted to observe that I actually write a great deal about politics. I do so for the same reason that while I might show fellow snorklers a cute porcupinefish if convenient, I should take some considerable trouble to advise them if I had spotted a tiger shark.

Government is big, hungry and ever-present. So we must pay attention to it. But I confess to some feeling of bemusement at the number of commentators who seem to think that Paul Martin becoming prime minister, or even Tony Clement haplessly seeking to become leader of an opposition party, will flood their life with colour, zest and meaning. I would rather be writing about things like tropical fish, which are more fun, more interesting and in many ways more important. Politics is simply more pressing.

On my last swim I spotted a juvenile hogfish head-down on a fan of coral. Go on. I defy you. Go sit in the House of Commons visitors' gallery and tell me what you saw that was half as interesting.

At first when you go swimming you look at all the fish and go "Ooooh, look at all the fish." Later you develop more discerning taste and go "Ooooh, look at all the colourful fish." Then you get back to the boat and argue whether it was green with yellow stripes, orange with a blue stripe or mottled. The guide books help ensure an interesting vacation by showing you an infinite variety of fish that don't faintly resemble the ones you think you saw or, better yet, various fish each of which has 14 different colour schemes and a note saying these can vary.

Eventually you learn to pay attention to such things as shape of tail fin, eye colour, number of stripes. And you feel real satisfaction when you instinctively recognize a yellow snapper. You don't find those in Parliament. Uh, wait a minute...

Anyway, I'm back now, my shoes full of sponsorship spam, contemplating the inability of Ottawa City Council to cut back on mulch and its belief that shifting property taxes from the homes people live in to the firms where they work is the best thing since manna from heaven, and like Scrooge I'm about ready to retire to Bedlam. I have one question first, though.

Do they have a salt-water fish tank?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson