PM a mirage in old Fort Langley

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Langley on Monday, being his usual communicative self.

We got the call a few hours before his 4 p.m. appearance that we would be allowed to send a photographer – no reporters allowed – to capture images of the great man.

No questions to be asked, at all.

No communication with the PM.

At the appointed time, I dutifully went down with my photographer hat on and was pointed to a railing, behind which I could stand and photograph the PM from the safe distance of about 20 feet. Apparently this is close enough to bask in the presence of the PM, but not so close that he actually has to acknowledge your existence.

Harper’s attempts to manage his public image have become farcical over the last few years.

It’s not that we begrudge him his lack of charisma – far from it! Please, let us have more boring leaders, as it forces us to think about their policies, rather than their hairstyles and broad white grins.

Let’s have Justin Trudeau wear only dull, rumpled grey suits and a bag on his head from now on.

The NDP’s Thomas Mulcair is only marginally more approachable than Harper, and often seems as prickly as a hedgehog.

The problem with Harper isn’t that he’s boring, it’s that he thinks we’re all boring. Too boring to speak to, at any rate.

Ever since he was first elected, Harper has steadily reduced his exposure to anyone who might want to ask him a question, in public, in front of a hot mic.

Instead, we get heavily stage-managed events like this one. The theme is Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday (just three years away!) so let’s have him in Fort Langley, with some HBC trade goods and blankets in the background. When he does answer questions, they’re often softball queries tossed by reliable allies.

It was at an event like that in Vancouver that a couple of protestors managed to get close to Harper. Of course, in the grand Canadian tradition, all they did was hold up signs to bring attention to global warming. They didn’t even try to pie him.

Most of these appearances could be simulated from Ottawa with a greenscreen and a copy of Photoshop. This would also save on the travel costs for the federal government, and who would mind that?

Harper can expect a lot more attempts to disrupt his schedule if he maintains his present course. There’s simply no better way to get some attention for your cause than by getting it in front of the PM. A

nd if the PM won’t talk or engage with Canadians outside of scripted and controlled moments, you disrupt the script, you make the moment a little less controlled.

I know there are a lot of areas where I don’t agree with Harper, but I’d respect him more if he’d explain himself honestly and take tough questions now and again. Heck, “I don’t know” and “That’s a tough one” are legitimate answers, and ones we should hear more often from out politicians (of all parties) rather than pat answers that dodge the questions.

There are reasons for Harper to change his ways of dealing with the press and public beyond the fact that it’s the right thing to do. He’s on the campaign trail for 2015 in a low-key way already. He’ll be trying to either defend his first majority government, or shore it up for his successor. And he’ll be trying to do that under the looming shadow of the Senate expenses scandal.

What he needs right now is practice at talking to actual Canadians, and debating people who hold different values and ideas.

Because come the real campaign, he’s going to have to do a bit of that.

And if he’s rusty, things won’t go well for him.

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