Three-ring circus on the hill

Canadian politics has become a circus complete with clowns, tawdry sideshows and even a heartbreaker in a glamorous costume. It's amusing for the peanut gallery, but a tough life for the participants and an increasingly bad deal for the audience. Start with the high-flying trapeze girl. I believe Belinda Stronach is a Liberal at heart. I never understood what she was doing in the Tory party, nor what they saw in her. It can't just have been youth and good looks; this is not the 1950s. I'm sure I had a clipping about her many proven talents around here somewhere. But anyway, she has her reward.

So does Paul Martin. He has probably prolonged his time in office by months. But at what cost to his dignity? When he tried to tell journalists his lavish recruitment of Ms. Stronach was unrelated to the budget vote, they famously burst out laughing; Andrew Coyne on CBC Newsworld said the press now treats the prime minister as "risible." Nice polka-dot pants, dude.

Country legend "Cowboy Jack" Clement does (cue wheezing calliope) an old song about a kid who runs off with a circus and loses his heart to a high-flying trapeze girl. But she's just having a fling to make her ex-boyfriend the clown jealous, so one day "His new sweetheart opened the door/ And he knew when he saw the clown standing behind her/ In front of her, there stood one more."

I don't mean Peter MacKay; in being publicly dumped, he is, as Clement also sings, "trapped in an old country song" (like She Got the Gold Mine and I Got the Shaft or The Gold Rush is Over and the Bum's Rush is On). But her leaving you for another party is too cruel even for country music.

I mean the whole clown car full of Tories standing in front of Ms. Stronach's trailer with stupid looks on their faces.

Like Ralph Klein's chief of staff Rod Love, a major player in her leadership campaign; Don Martin quoted him in Wednesday's Citizen that, "A lot of us went out on a limb for her because she represented something new and we have now found out she represents the worst of the old." So long ... sucker.

Also Brian Mulroney, Bill Davis and umpteen clever strategists and sophisticated centrist caucus members.

If this were serious theatre, I am convinced they'd now be better off. I have been saying for 11 years that the Reform/Alliance/Conservatives can only win by presenting a clear philosophical and programmatic alternative. And when your party is conspicuously represented by pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-big government urban sophisticates, it's a bit hard to do.

For 11 years, they have been shooshing me. And their reward is to stand at the trailer door with Belinda grinning from ear to ear and Paul Martin smirking behind her. So who's wearing the big grease-paint frown now?

It's bad enough being a right-wing party in which moderates don't feel comfortable. Now they're a moderate party in which moderates don't feel comfortable and an Opposition that doesn't oppose. They ride around on unicycles juggling pies and then, WHAP, they hit themselves in the face. Hilarious. Then they do a John Kerry impression and vote for the budget before they vote against it, thus positioning themselves to campaign on the Liberal platform in an election they failed to trigger. The Citizen ran a headline Wednesday, "Tories fear Stronach will reveal election strategy to Liberals." What's secret, or scary, about "Ignite hair, extinguish with fork"? And what election?

Yes, folks, step right up. In the centre ring (drum roll please), we present the incredible Torini. There is no situation, however favourable, in which he cannot inextricably ensnare himself. Watch him waver. Watch him panic. Watch him abandon his principles then frighten off voters with his tone.

Now please spare a thought for the audience, watching their faith in politicians do a dizzying high dive into a tub of sleaze while folks in the western bleachers shift angrily in their seats at the ringmaster's failed joke about reducing Western alienation as one of his 58,000 top priorities.

The circus can be fun. But not when it busts loose and turns the whole town into a sideshow hall of mirrors where every apparent exit just leads to another nightmarishly distorted reflection of us in the people we've elected. And we're not getting any help from the trained seals with red balls on their noses.

So Tories, listen well, let me tell you a story. At the end of that old song, the guy quits, leaving a note that ends "Goodbye cruel circus, I'm off to join the world." It's time to grow up, realize tinsel is not real gold and flashing blue LED ice cubes are not real magic, and start taking conservatism seriously as a philosophy and a political movement.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson