Jun 172013
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In politics, as in romance, “Little Things Mean a Lot.” 

by Geoffrey Stevens

“Little Things Mean a Lot,” as Kitty Kallen sang in the sappy love song that topped the Billboard chart for nine weeks back in 1954. (Blow me a kiss from across the room/ Say I look nice when I'm not. … Arghh!) Treacly though the song is, the sentiment ought to be a mantra for Canadian political leaders in  2013.

Let’s start with Thomas Mulcair. The rap against him when he ran for the NDP leadership last year was that he was too intense and perhaps too arrogant to withstand the pressures of being leader of the opposition. To his credit, he learned to disguise his impatience and suppress his temper; his calm dissection of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s evasions in the Senate expenses scandal has been masterful.

It takes just one little thing to undo months of painstaking reputation-rebuilding.

But it takes just one little thing to undo months of painstaking reputation-rebuilding. For Mulcair, the little thing intruded last week when he arrived in his car for work on Parliament Hill. Normally, the Mounties just wave him through their checkpoint. But this time they did not. Mulcair drove past without stopping on his way to his parking space, where a police cruiser, lights flashing, caught up to him.

It was a very little thing. Every officer who pulls duty on the Hill knows the leader of the opposition and recognizes his car. They know he is no security threat. They wouldn’t stop the prime minister or the speaker of the House, so why should they stop the leader of the opposition?

Mulcair, however, turned a little thing into a big thing. He let some of the old arrogance show. “Don’t you know who I am?” he demanded of the officer who approached him. (It was reminiscent of former Conservative cabinet minister Helena Guergis who acted that way when she was asked to remove her boots for screening at Charlottetown airport in February 2010.)

Mulcair apologized afterward, but the damage had been done. The public is left with an impression that he is one of those politicians who think they are too important to put up with the minor inconveniences of everyday life. And the Conservatives, desperate for good news, had a field day in Question Period.

Justine Trudeau’s expeinsive speech was fine, but the charity event lost money. Very belatedly, nine months after the fact, the charity asked for its money back. .

Next, Justin Trudeau. As Liberal leader since April this year, he has been dealing with criticism that he is coasting on his family name and fortune. He has to prove himself every day, and last week’s controversy over his speaking fees handed ammunition to his opponents.

Before he became Liberal leader, Trudeau had a lucrative sideline, renting himself out as public speaker to supplement his parliamentary wages. Last year, before he declared for the Liberal leadership, he accepted $20,000 for speaking at a charity event, held to raise money for an old folks’ home in New Brunswick. His speech was fine, but the event lost money. Very belatedly, nine months after the fact, the charity asked for its money back.

Initially, Trudeau refused. His refusal – it made him seem greedy – touched off a small firestorm in the Commons, and on the weekend Trudeau agreed to return the $20,000. He also indicated he will return another $20,000 he was paid for a speech to a literacy conference in Saskatoon last year.

Trudeau promised in a TV interview on Sunday to make matters right, but his contrition, like Mulcair’s apology, comes too late. A little thing like a speaking fee has taken some of the sheen off the Trudeau image.

Finally, Stephen Harper. Little things have haunted him in the Senate expense scandal. For years, the Conservative party was starved for celebrities. Celebrities win votes and raise lots of money. That’s the only reason Harper appointed two celebrities, journalists Pam Wallin and Mike Duffy, to the Senate.

Senate appointments are little things in the Ottawa universe. But there is a particular problem with appointing celebrities. They don’t realize how insignificant senators really are. They come to the obscurity of the upper house thinking they are more important and are entitled to better treatment than ordinary mortals.

That sense of entitlement lies at the heart of the Senate scandal. As Kitty Kallen sang, "A line a day when you're far away/ Little things mean a lot."

About Geoffrey Stevens

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at the address below. This article appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

© Copyright 2013 Geoffrey Stevens, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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