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The lighter side of politics

It's election time in Canada and once again a great occasion to watch politicians putting their feet into their mouths — saying the wrong thing and doing the wrong thing. Not that they haven't been doing that outside election time.

Everybody remembers Joe Clark, the original king of the political gaffers, who travelled to India and asked an impoverished farmer standing on his tiny plot of land, "What is the totality of your acreage?"

"You are looking at it, sir," came the reply.

"And what is your crop?" Joe continued, undeterred.

"It is called wheat, sir," he replied, straight-faced.

That was the same trip Joe lost his luggage, and taken together those gaffes anchored Joe's image forever in the public mind.

Fast forward to this summer. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper goes out West to flip hamburgers for the cameras. But they dress him up in a cute, little, way-too-tight cowboy outfit, leading some to believe his opposition to a gay lifestyle may not be perfect. Harper's new image as the gay rodeo rider was probably not what they were aiming for.

So comes the winter election, and Harper heads out on the hustings. Time to announce the party's child care proposal.

Why not pick a day care centre? Great idea. Except that it means meeting kids, something Harper does badly, unless the children are his own.

But moments later the icy, nerdy leader of the Conservative Party is handed a little baby, which he bounces in his arms with all the joy of a young father. Go figure.

Many Harper gaffes are about the law. Why is it Conservatives always have trouble with the law?

Never one to shy away from hyperbole, Harper said in the Commons in November that the Liberal Party had been "found guilty of breaking every conceivable law in Quebec with the help of organized crime."

"Found guilty?" When wsas the trial? "Every conceivable law" in Quebec? Wow, that's a lot.

As for "organized crime," Harper explained the Liberal Party is "organized" and what it did was a "crime."

Young lawyers might be advised to use another line of argument in defining "organized crime" in a courtroom.

A few days later, Harper announced that as prime minister he would appoint a special U.S.-style independent prosecutor to prosecute crimes against the federal government. So far so good.

But then he said the prosecutor would go after the sponsorship program crooks. Ooops. That's Quebec's jurisdiction. Did he know, or didn't he care?

Worse, he forgot to tell his second-in-command, MP Peter MacKay a former Crown prosecutor who does know the law. MacKay was blindsided by reporters and contradicted his leader. Not exactly "organized" but at least not "a crime."

The election circuit has never been kind to politicians in Quebec. It is almost a decade since Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe went around in his shower cap at a visit to a cheese factory, or when Jean Chrétien, visiting a military base in the Saguenay, put on an army helmet backwards, and nobody in uniform was about to tell him otherwise.

There are photo-ops that politicians should never do. One of them is eating hot-buttered corn-on-the-cob for the cameras.

Women politicians should always refuse popsicles in front of the cameras. The same with ice cream cones. Just don't go there.

Politicians in Quebec haven't eaten hot dogs in public since Pierre Trudeau called Robert Bourassa "un mangeur de hot-dog" and the put-down stuck.

Jean Chrétien was the source of an endless series of gaffes, especially when he left the country, telling his hosts in Jerusalem that East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem were all the same to him.

Liberal leaders seem to have a greater propensity for oral foot insertions when they deal with international issues.

Paul Martin came back from China last January and said that at an official dinner in Beijing he'd sat next to an "opposition member" of the People's Congress. That came as news to the government of China.

Later in February, Martin said it was clear that "if the Syrians are in Lebanon, it's because they must keep the peace." That too came as news to the Lebanese.

Back home in Ottawa he explained his Syrian gaffe to the Commons: "I said in French and I said in English that the Syrians should withdraw from Syria. I have said it three times. How many more times need I say it?"

Nonetheless, the Syrians must have gotten his message, as they left Lebanon for Syria soon afterwards.

Not that history is Martin's strong suit.

In February, recalling Canadian participation in the Second World War,  he explained, "Today it is every bit as important that Canada step forward just as we did during the invasion of Norway." Normandy, yes, Italy, yes, but Norway, no. That was someone else.

Canadians can look forward to a lot more delightful gaffes from its politicians during the election.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill.

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