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Harper plays populist tune on arts cuts Add to ...

In his first detailed defence of $45-million in controversial cuts to arts and culture funding, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper called his party's decisions good governance and said the government must walk "a fine line" between providing financial stability and "funding things that people actually don't want."

In an exclusive telephone interview with The Globe and Mail during a campaign stop at a winery in St-Eustache, Que., Mr. Harper, who many have called a Philistine, also spoke at length about his life-long passion for music and the piano as he denied the cuts were ideologically motivated.

He said the government should play "a fundamental role" in encouraging growth and excellence in arts and culture, but added that the marketplace, consumers and benefactors must also help shape the cultural landscape.

"You don't get to the point where you're just abandoning it, because I think cultural life is too fragile for that. And on the other hand, you don't get to the point where, to be blunt, you have creators or producers who are entirely cut off from public need or public demand."

Such remarks are sure to stoke the ire of arts supporters who have cautioned that the Tories wish to dictate taste and censor artists who don't conform, a fear that has its roots in the debate over Bill C-10.

But Mr. Harper flatly denied any ideological underpinnings, saying the cuts were made through a series of analyses, the bulk of which "the Department [of Canadian Heritage]itself" carried out.

He also disputed the characterization that his government has broadly "cut the arts," saying that net spending on arts and culture has increased. But he said he is willing to accept criticism for deciding that $45-million in programs deemed not to be priorities be reduced or eliminated, launching a veiled barb at his political opponents.

"There are some people who say, 'Well, it isn't good enough to increase funding for the arts, you have to increase funding for every single program.' My simple response is that no responsible government can manage the government that way. You have to select priorities and you have to make choices," he said.

Several members of the arts community contacted by The Globe in recent weeks attested to Mr. Harper's past forays into the arts, which included periods of intense musical endeavour. It is part of a picture the Tories are working to bring to the fore during the campaign - a more sophisticated and artistic Stephen Harper - that is not easily reconciled with the cold calculations behind the funding reductions.

Mr. Harper spoke at length about his lifelong affair with music. Although his parents "had no particular musical skill or aptitude," his father, Joseph, was an avid jazz fan who idolized Duke Ellington, collecting every piece of music he ever recorded or wrote.

He took the piano "very seriously" and eventually passed the Royal Conservatory of Music's Grade 9 examinations, demonstrating considerable proficiency at the keyboard, and said that although he "had a bit of talent," he was held back because his hands shook when he was nervous, a trait he later outgrew.

For most of his adult life, he didn't own a piano and rarely played, leaving him "a shadow of my former self." But since moving to 24 Sussex Dr., which boasts an impressive instrument, he has taken it up once more. He said the greatest satisfaction is playing with his son, Ben, who is teaching himself piano and guitar - although he acknowledged his thoroughly formal training and Ben's freewheeling approach don't always mesh well.

And he occasionally performs at parties with his informal band of friends and staff, Stephen and the Firewalls, a delightfully ironic name given his government's reputation for secrecy.

"They aren't too bad (they aren't too good either)," a source close to the Mr. Harper wrote in an e-mail.

The source confirmed that the Tory Leader plays regularly, something Mr. Harper himself called a dangerous attraction.

"I've always been torn on music and piano in a way because I actually get a great deal of satisfaction out of when I do it, but I get so wrapped up in it. I've always had that problem with the artistic things I've enjoyed doing - I've played piano, I've sung a bit, I used to write poetry - I've always found with these kinds of things that they draw me in and I can't let them go. I find it difficult to do it just on the side, a little bit here and now," he said.

This fascination manifested itself early in Mr. Harper's childhood, although he can't remember how he came to choose the piano.

"For the first half year I was in lessons, we didn't have a piano and I would actually practice for my lessons on a cardboard keyboard, so I would only hear it for the first time when I actually sat down and had the lessons," he said.

The conservatory's president, Peter Simon, has seen the focus that compels a young boy to play a silent keyboard firsthand. When he met Mr. Harper at a fundraiser, he said the Conservative Leader quickly launched into a discussion of his studies and his frustration with the results of a Grade 3 musical theory exam on which he scored poorly, despite studying hard.

"It obviously meant a lot to him. It was the intensity of his feelings [that struck me] that to someone who is in effect a stranger he would be that intense about it," Mr. Simon said.

The conservatory's board chair, Florence Minz, has also met Mr. Harper and said flatly, "This is no Philistine."

For those wondering why a man of such long-standing artistic interest and curiosity seems so comfortable axing substantial funding from Canada's cultural milieu, Mr. Harper's answers continue to be rooted not in an ideology about the arts, but a philosophy that stresses the need to trim government spending.

"If you don't do that, what you have over time, and frankly what we inherited, was growth of government spending without any resulting improvement in government programming overall. It's just a discipline you have to maintain and it doesn't mean you're slashing some artist or you're slashing farmers or whatever. It simply means that you are constantly reviewing your spending," he said.

 

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