The other day, New Zealand declared itself to be in recession. Japan, the world's second-largest economy, had done so three weeks earlier. No one will do business with Iceland's banks, and the country itself is near bankruptcy. So is Pakistan. Britain has just partially nationalized eight of its largest banks. You likely have heard of them. They include Barclays, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland. The latter was to have helped finance the biggest leveraged buyout in world history, the $51-billion deal to take our very own Ma Bell private. Turns out that RBS is suddenly tapped out, like Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Wachovia, AIG, and all the other wreckage. Venerable, giant American financial institutions with control of $11 trillion in assets have, in the past few weeks, been forcibly merged into even larger firms, nationalized by the U.S. Government, or collapsed into bankruptcy. Germany has just declared it will make good on losses suffered by any customer of a deposit-taking institution in the land. The world's third-largest economy is reacting to sudden developments in Ireland, where there now is no ceiling on the amount of deposits Dublin will reimburse on hehalf of customers of failed financial institutions. This has European leaders in a panic that depositors from Budapest to Lyon will now race to transfer their life savings to County Cork. A comparative miserly Uncle Sam has abruptly raised the U.S. bank-deposit insurance ceiling to $250,000 from $100,000. The financial-emergency summit Sarko hosted over the weekend was a shambles. Now it's hoped that the two dozen or so members of the European Union can somehow agree on a common rescue strategy where the dozen or so members of the eurozone could not. The American workforce has lost about 600,000 jobs this year. It is estimated that about six million Americans will lose their homes through foreclosure by the end of next year. Russia closed its principal stock exchange on Wednesday. It will remain closed until Friday. Australia's central bank cut its key lending by a full percentage point this week, for the first time in 17 years, in a bid to jump-start a stalled economy.
Then there's Canada, the land misery forgot, with apologies to the approximately 350,000 manufacturing and foresty workers to lose their jobs since 2002. But from 2002 to 2007, Canada has created a net 1.5 million new jobs. We have created 87,000 new jobs so far this year. Our unemployment rate is, by Canadian standards, a modest 6.1 per cent. None of our major banks or insurers have required a bailout, because our financial regulations are more strict than elsewhere in the world, our financial management is on the whole more prudent, and our greed culture, such as it is, has Canadian corporate CEOs earning about 30 or 40 times the pay of shopfloor workers, compared with about 400 times in the U.S. The home-mortgage delinquency rate in Canada is 0.3 per cent, compared with between 2 and 3 per cent in the U.S. House prices have not plummeted 30 per cent to 70 per cent in major Canadian markets, as they have in the U.S., Britain, Spain, Ireland and other countries with housing bubbles that have burst, because we did not have a housing bubble, merely about five or six years of gradually rising home values which now are plateauing or dipping a bit. Most of the world is or soon will be in official recession - two or more quarters of "negative growth" in economic output. But a gloomy International Monetary Fund makes an exception in its global forecasts for Canada, which will, it says, outpace its G-7 peers with 1.2 per cent growth next year. The Royal Bank of Canada is projecting growth of 1.5 per cent. The Toronto stock market is off some 36 per cent, about the usual for a bear market, and in line with or less severe than plunges at bourses elsewhere, despite Canada's reliance on the export of commodities whose world prices have tumbled. Demand for those commodities will begin surging again in a year or two, because developing-world demand for them - not just in China and India - will remain insatiable for another two or three decades.
And yet, if polls in our current federal election keep trending as they have for the past two weeks, we are poised to fire our prime minister, or at the least consign him to another minority government in a campaign that began with him avoiding the "M" word, for majority, lest his party's initial 38 per cent to 41 per cent popularity scare off voters not willing to give him absolute power. Think about it. Who campaigns worrying, correctly, that the people fear him obtaining a majority?
What exactly has Stephen Harper done to deserve this rebuke?
It's not a mystery for the ages.
Stephen Harper has given the back of his hand to his own cabinet and caucus, sabotaged the workings of his minority government in order to create the false impression that this transparently unnecessary election was justified, shown only contempt for the media - which the public doesn't like, either, but of necessity must be relied upon to convey Harper's message to 33 million of us - and by turns looked frustrated, impatient and generally unhappy in his job. He was like this as the Reform's first policy chief, as a quarrelsome colleague of fellow Reform MPs Deb Gray and Preston Manning, as head of the nutter National Citizens Coalition, as leader of the Canadian Alliance, as abettor of Peter MacKay's betrayal of the Progressive Conservatives, as official oppositon leader and since January 2006 as prime minister.
Walter Stewart wrote a biography of a past prime minister, Shrug: Trudeau in Power, about a PM who so often appeared to care not a whit about the circumstances of the people he ostensibly led. The label stuck. But Pierre Trudeau was a visionary, the most cerebral of his global peers. And we suffered his insolence for 15 years because we took pride in his ambition for us, and in the renown he brought our neglected country beyond our borders. We've had other such leaders, Macdonald and Laurier. Harper, alas, is another George Brown or Arthur Meighen, stubbornly grumpy, mean spirited, evincing no spirit of collegiality. Even Mulroney had friends, lots of them.
So when the financial End Times appear to being engulfing us, once-mighty banks toppling and leaders elsewhere as panic-stricken as the man whose head is on fire and he tries to put it out with a hammer, we swiftly let our anxiety about the harrowing events abroad be transformed into our own contempt for a local leader so lacking in empathy, compassion, hope. A politician, of all things, at a loss for the right words. Who appears not even to search for them.
Trudeau had the good fortune to coincide with the likes of Richard Nixon. It's Harper's misfortune to be contrasted with a self-described "hope-monger" whom 80 per cent of us say we hope will be the 44th U.S. president, a thoughtful, empathetic, visionary man. If we didn't know from Trudeau's legacy and Obama's promise, we might have settled for less in these times so much more difficult for others than for ourselves. But we have known better.
This will always be Stephen Harper's dilemma. It would take the better part of a day to explain to him what Hubert Humphrey meant by "the politics of joy." Harper is a fairly competent administrator, but not a natural politician. No one so consumed with petulance can last long at his chosen trade. The people smell it, the technocratic, ideological grandiosity of a man willfully out of touch even with those closest to him. And so, in his third attempt, Harper will again be denied a majority.
He is a perfectly decent family man. But Harper is not one of us, not particularly happy to lead Canadians or even to be one, if his past writings and speeches are any guide. We tolerate him because of the alternatives. And even at that, only just.