Harper's Bubble: Campaign 2008

Photographers are summoned to a spot behind an office building on Parliament Hill for 8:15 a.m. There they are provided with directions to that morning's photo op - this one in the living room of a nondescript, middle-class Ottawa family whose three sons, all under the age of 12, play the violin, viola and cello respectively. Shortly thereafter, a dozen reporters board a small bus from the same Hill location and are driven to the CONSERVATIVE party campaign headquarters, located on the second floor of a nondescript two-storey office building on the outskirts of the capital.

Inside a makeshift television studio, that first family is joined by a second nondescript, middle-class group, this one with four girls and a boy. And with children on either side of him - the kids looking variously perplexed, frightened and bored - Stephen HARPER makes another small, but not insignificant announcement aimed at another small, but not insignificant segment of the Canadian population (an offer of a tax credit to parents whose children are enrolled in artistic activities). Afterwards, reporters are permitted to ask questions, following a predetermined order. Speaking out of turn is not tolerated.

"I think what the Prime Minister has learned from previous campaigns is that it's important to have discipline and focus in all aspects of the campaign," says Tim Powers, a Conservative strategist, "from the way the tour is run to the messages that you're giving out."

The Prime Minister, though looking a bit tired on this Monday morning, dispatches the queries handily. Unfortunately, one of the human props behind him is less sturdy: the young girl, seemingly overcome by the stage lights, looking glassy-eyed and wobbly as she's helped off stage.

The odd bout of light-headedness aside - it's not the first time a human prop has been overcome during the campaign - this is what some reporters have come to call Stephen Harper's bubble. Nothing unexpected, no one uninvited, everything in its right place. The Liberals, who have been faulted for constructing a less impressive bubble, have found great glee in quantifying the Prime Minister's isolation - keeping weekly count of how many of Harper's events have been open to the general public, compared to those of Stéphane DION. At last count it was Dion 38, Harper 0. The Prime Minister did take time from the campaign trail to attend his high school reunion. Though in that relatively uncontrolled setting, he was subsequently heckled.

The only other heckler to reportedly breach the bubble did so at an event in Rockland, Ont. The RCMP quickly removed him from the premises. The Mounties were similarly dispatched to block reporters who attempted to question the Prime Minister shortly after the party's use of a digital puffin led to the suspension of a campaign staffer. Reporters trying to question Dona Cadman, a Conservative candidate in British Columbia and the widow of former MP Chuck Cadman, were also stymied, reportedly at the behest of an aide to Harper.

"Certainly," Harper said recently, asked about his campaign, "my security situation changed radically once I became Prime Minister."

All of which may mean something or nothing at all. "I think it's a lot of the chatter in the chattering classes and the people who pay more attention to this than perhaps we all should," Powers says. "I think what [ordinary] people are interested in seeing are what their leaders are doing and what they are offering them and they're not as interested in the mechanics."

For sure, all candidates are, to some degree or another, isolated. And most of everything in a campaign is mechanics. So perhaps the question is how far the mechanics push the campaign from reality. And whether mastering life inside the bubble qualifies one to govern life outside it.

Later this day, it's off to Val d'Or, 500 km north of Montreal. As the campaign buses roll from the airport through town, a woman leans out the passenger side window of a stopped car and extends a middle finger at the caravan. Her salute is seconded by various other passersby. Apparently blessed of advance notice, 100 union protesters are waiting at the conference centre where Harper is scheduled to speak.

Inside, there are only supportive faces, each attendee stamped with a blue Stephen Harper sticker and squeezed into a nondescript ballroom sans air conditioning, where they will cheer at the appropriate points and, if necessary, bang thundersticks together or wave placards. The Prime Minister speaks efficiently and almost entirely in French, save for a couple of clips dismissing Stéphane Dion en anglais for the evening news. Another small, but not insignificant announcement aimed at another small, but not insignifcant segment of the population (this one about support for older workers).

Behind Harper are three rows of human props, the youngest children seated up front, a representative smattering of teenagers and adults standing behind them. The people here of obviously more rugged stock, not one of them collapses under the lights.

Maclean's October 13, 2008