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Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign stop at a steel manufacturer in Sault Ste. Marie, September 1, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign stop at a steel manufacturer in Sault Ste. Marie, September 1, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

John Doyle: Conservative campaign unravelling as refugee crisis unfolds Add to ...

We should keep our eyes peeled for the sweater.

You remember the sweater. The Harperman wore it, famously, in his “Family is everything” TV commercials in the 2008 federal election campaign. Got up in a soft blue sweater he smiled and claimed to “play a lot of card games with the kids” and to go to the movies with them.

The TV commercial campaign is cited as a success by its creators, the agency Reason Partners, who said, “The campaign was created to address the political opposition and media portrayal of Mr. Harper being ‘scary, cold and aloof’ and at the same time attract more female votes.”

Things change. The Conservative campaign needs more than a sweater now. Watching it unfold last week on TV was an eye-opener, an insight into a disaster. Clearly, there is no plan for dealing with media questions and coverage, and on the evidence of the Harperman’s insistence that bombs, not shelter and kindness, remains the primary answer to a heart-scalding humanitarian crisis, there is no moral authority to govern us.

Pundits across various media platforms have taken the view that the Harperman rescued himself and his party from utter failure of compassion with a few well-chosen words at an event in Surrey, B.C., last Thursday. He mentioned “heartbreak” at seeing the photo of tiny Alan Kurdi dead on a beach in Turkey. “We could drive ourselves crazy with grief. Obviously we want to do what we can do to help,” Harper said.

Well, television isn’t radio. It isn’t easy to insult intelligence on TV. The camera locates and highlights authenticity, or it nails fakery. Watching on TV, I saw words come out of the Harperman’s mouth in the same way that he pulls on a sweater – to flag authenticity.

Election campaigns are both complicated and simple. The simple part is this – get the message out, appear more real and capable of good governance than the other guy. The complicated part is sweet-talking voters into sympathy with you and your point of view. The Conservative attempt to sweet talk anybody into anything had ended already when Chris Alexander, a minister of the government, no less, went on TV and uncannily adopted the whiny, hostile tone of the vigilante sneering at the cops on Criminal Minds. Compassion? Yeah, whatever, but killing barbarians is the primary purpose so lets get on with that.

At a time when the world is stunned by the image of a dead child, when words matter and subtly is essential, when the truth of the saying “politics is the art of compromise” is never more obvious, Alexander’s gambit was uncompromising, partisan belligerence. In those few minutes on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics, the Conservative campaign became unmoored from reality – unmoored from Canada itself, its values and tradition of social responsibility. When host Rosemary Barton reacted with flabbergasted exasperation, she was reacting for Canada.

There is so much about the Conservative campaign that has become bizarre it is hard to know where to start, where to find a thread in the unravelling. And I’m only talking about watching it on TV for a few days. But let’s go back to the sweater, because it was both symbolic and a trick. TV viewers were meant to extrapolate something from it.

Extrapolating meaning during an election campaign isn’t that hard. The Harperman’s insistence that we send warplanes and bombs to Syria, rather than emphasize compassion, is an emphatically male response, to the point of being distinctly phallic. It is tough masculinity as shorthand for strong political leadership. The ceaseless attack ads that mock Justin Trudeau’s “nice hair” are intended to feminize the Liberal Leader, inviting the viewer to extrapolate weakness from that trick of feminizing him.

The simplicity of it is startling, but it now looks unsettlingly inappropriate. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding. In that context, is the appropriate response phallic or feminine? Isn’t it true that a sense of social responsibility is also a sign of strength? Isn’t it true that there are soccer clubs in Germany – run by men who value machismo – who have shown a greater sense of social responsibility than the government of Canada? (Bayern Munich will donate $1.11-million [U.S.] to help refugees, set up camps for those arriving in Munich, give refugee children meals and German lessons and the team will be accompanied by refugee children when they enter the field for a home game.)

Something’s come undone in the Conservative campaign. We should keep our eyes peeled for the sweater. It would be too little and too late now, but it worked before. For some people.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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