Misadventures of Miss Huronia .. have Canadian Liberals found their ticket?

Apr 19th, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief
Helena Guergis and her (then) fiancée, Rahim Jaffer, at the MuchMusic Video Awards, Toronto, July 16, 2008. They were married October 15, 2008.

Helena Guergis and her (then) fiancée, Rahim Jaffer, at the MuchMusic Video Awards, Toronto, July 16, 2008. They were married October 15, 2008.

[UPDATED APRIL 20]. Ordinarily I don’t like to discuss political scandals. I over-value the illusion that I am higher-minded than all that. Serious public policy debate is at least what ought to count in the real world of democratic politics, etc, etc.

(And if we the people don’t take this high-minded view, who will? Certainly not the politicians or the mainstream mass media?)

But of course sometimes a quite low-minded scandal casts a giant shadow across the practical political landscape. And looking ahead at the week of April 19, 2010 in Canadian federal politics, it almost seems as if the current bizarre misadventures of the former Miss Huronia — and now former junior cabinet minister and former member of the Conservative Party of Canada caucus in Ottawa — are about to acquire some kind of stature they probably do not deserve.

On the side of Yes We Can (say the opposition Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois) is a headline from yesterday’s Toronto Star (where else?): “Guergis scandal gives Tories reason to worry … Pollster cites sagging support, says PM has reason to be ‘very uncomfortable’.”  The pollster in question is Frank Graves,  president of EKOS Research Associates Inc. This past Thursday the report on the weekly poll he does for the CBC was headlined “GUERGISIZED! TORIES REDUCED TO INSIGNIFICANT LEAD.”

[UPDATE APRIL 20: Some opposition parties are apparently losing interest. According to the Globe and Mail: “NDP grows tired of Guergis affair, asks for Parliament to move on … ‘Enough is enough,’ says NDP MP Pat Martin, arguing ‘there are more compelling issues facing the nation’.”  At the same time, according to the Toronto Star: “A spokesperson for ethics commissioner Mary Dawson said today that she is following up on a complaint from the NDP that Guergis might have violated the conflict of interest code for MPs.” If you are confused by these two vaguely conflicting reports, join the club. Meanwhile, Ms Guergis’s husband Rahim Jaffer will be testifying before a Canadian House of Commons committee tomorrow, April 21. This may fan the flames or start putting them out? ]

Helena Guergis, minister for status of women, honours the 14 women slain in Montreal in 1989 at a ceremony in the Canadian House of Commons foyer, December 1, 2009. ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

Helena Guergis, minister for status of women, honours the 14 women slain in Montreal in 1989 at a ceremony in the Canadian House of Commons foyer, December 1, 2009. ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

On the other hand, to its credit (some will say), the Toronto Star also reported that “Hamish Marshall … at Angus Reid Public Opinion, says their polling show[s] the Conservatives so far unscathed by the [Helena Guergis-Rahim Jaffer] controversy and still holding a 7- to 9-point lead over the Liberals … ‘I’m not sure people are making the connection to more serious policy issues,’ Marshall said. Instead, he said the danger for Harper is if the Guergis affair overshadows the work of government.”

(It may also be relevant that: “Prior to joining Angus Reid, Hamish served …  in the Office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.” Not that this would affect Angus Reid polling results, of course, but … )

Canada’s Sarah Palin has some redeeming features?

Helena Guergis and husband Rahim Jaffer at parliamentary press gallery dinner in Ottawa, November 2008. Photograph by: David Akin, Canwest News Service.

Helena Guergis and husband Rahim Jaffer at parliamentary press gallery dinner in Ottawa, November 2008. Photograph by: David Akin, Canwest News Service.

From a different perspective again, yesterday’s Montreal Gazette ran a piece by the eminent (and often high-minded enough) conservative commentator L. Ian Macdonald, headlined “Harper too quick to throw Guergis over side … The PM has a habit of pushing the panic button under pressure.”

This raises the somewhat ironic prospect that the Harper Conservative minority government will finally be side-swiped not by its identification with the current misadventures of Ms. Guergis and her husband, but by its gutless failure to stand by an in some ways attractive and forward-looking contemporary Canadian Conservative couple, when the chips are down.

So, eg, it is true enough that Helena Guergis and Sarah Palin have something in common. They were both small-town beauty queens in their youth. Helena Guergis was crowned Miss Huronia at the height of her beauty-queen career — after the land of the ancient Huron in her present-day Simcoe County, Ontario homeland.

And, while she is not quite as cute as Ms. Palin in her deeper adulthood, part of Ms. Guergis’s current media magnetism must flow from the Big Love heartland sexuality she projects in photographs, and on TV.

Yet, say whatever else you like, for the Canadian progressive centrist majority the October 2008 marriage of Ms. Guergis and Mr. Jaffer can also be seen as optimistic evidence  that Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party of Canada still has its reassuring progressive conservative sides. Helena and Rahim symbolize the noble diversity of the old global empire on which the sun never dared to set (to say nothing of some fresh blending of rural Ontario and urban Alberta).

Imagine where right-wing America could be today — and even America at large from sea to shining sea — if Sarah Palin’s daughter were to marry Oprah Winfrey’s son (if only Oprah Winfrey had a son, of course, etc, etc, etc …).

It may not be technically illegal … but …

Helena Guergis and her cousin Tony Guergis, mayor of Springwater, Ontario and Simcoe County Warden. The Guergis family has a long history in Simcoe County politics in central Ontario, going back to her grandfather George. At the moment her sister Christine Brayford is also a councillor in the town of New Tecumseth, and her cousin David Guergis is the mayor of Essa Township.

Helena Guergis and her cousin Tony Guergis, mayor of Springwater, Ontario and Simcoe County Warden. The Guergis family has a long history in Simcoe County politics in central Ontario, going back to her grandfather George. At the moment her sister Christine Brayford is also a councillor in the town of New Tecumseth, and her cousin David Guergis is the mayor of Essa Township.

On yet another hand again, even if neither of them has done anything quite technically illegal, what L. Ian Macdonald has called a couple “that seemed to have a promising future have become a poster couple for inappropriate behaviour.”

(Driving under the influence, certainly in Mr. Jaffer’s case; drug abuse allegedly, even if certainly not by Ms. Guergis — to say nothing of her locally influential family in Simcoe County politics, in central Ontario; influence peddling, inappropriately even if not exactly illegally; unseemly displays of unbecoming arrogance in small-town airports, even if you have recently had two miscarriages; imprudent associations with sleazy business moguls, and on, and on, and on.)

Part of the trouble, no doubt, is that it is all so deeply fascinating, just like Desperate Housewives on American TV. So who knows? It actually may be unfair. And from a resolutely high-minded point of view, it is hardly any great blot on the Stephen Harper copy book.

(Especially, L. Ian Macdonald notwithstanding, now that the prime minister has thrown the inappropriately behaving couple under the bus, on the perhaps flimsy testimony of what may or may not be a disreputable private detective, who owns his own tank?)

Yet it is arguable that Mr. Harper’s two minority governments have coasted into office on the back of much equally unfair scandal mongering against their rivals. The Liberals apparently turned down the private detective’s initial overtures to them. But, now that the scandal is showing some prospect of practical political legs, they are warming to the task of  propagation.

And, sad but true perhaps: Nothing since the prorogation protest of a few months ago has shown as many serious signs of traction for any of the opposition parties. (And whose fault is this, you ask? Well, we might, all of us, start by looking in the mirror, no doubt.)

We will just have to wait and see …

Helena Guergis on a visit to Afghanistan, as Foreign Affairs and International Trade Secretary of State, April 2007.

Helena Guergis on a visit to Afghanistan, as Foreign Affairs and International Trade Secretary of State, April 2007.

It is of course still early days yet.  Even Frank Graves at EKOS has been careful to note: “We’ll know more clearly in a couple of weeks” — at the same time as he has quite boldly asserted: “but I think this could be a real turning point.”

At the same time yet again, even Hamish Marshall, formerly of the Office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has quietly moaned: “The worst possible thing for any politician is to become the butt of jokes. If this keeps going … that people start laughing at the government, that sort of thing has the capacity for damage.”

If this is what finally does the Harper minority government in Ottawa in — and gives the Ignatieff Liberals (with or without the Layton New Democrats?) the second chance they still do not yet really deserve, I will not be entirely happy myself. I still like to think that serious public policy debate is at least what ought to count in the real world of democratic politics.

But I also like to think that I am a political realist in the very end. And I won’t be sad either. Those who live by the sword, etc, etc, etc.

Minister of State for Status of Women Helena Guergis during Question Period in Canadian House of Commons, March 2010. Photograph by: Chris Wattie, Reuters.

Minister of State for Status of Women Helena Guergis during Question Period in Canadian House of Commons, March 2010. Photograph by: Chris Wattie, Reuters.

(Especially when they have so aggressively pretended that they actually do go to church every Sunday — and usually show up for Wednesday night prayer meeting too.)

In any case, for the moment the very bottom line is still that we will just have to wait and see. The week that lies ahead may start to thicken the plot. Or not. The Afghan detainee issue, for all its popular obscurity, could add some fuel to the fire. The “non-abortion abortion legislation” could spell more trouble for the Harper minority Tories, down the road. Or the gathering clouds could suddenly clear, and the increasingly intriguing modern Canadian short story of Helena Guergis and Rahim Jaffer disappear.

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