It was the Canadian equivalent of the shot heard ’round the world. And, almost as soon as Sidney Crosby fired a puck through the five-hole on U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller to win Canada the hockey gold medal in overtime on the last day of the Vancouver Olympics February 28, it was destined to be just as useful for the propaganda of our political masters as the shot that triggered the American Revolution.
One shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, at the way Prime Minister Stephen Harper made himself so visible at many high-profile Olympic events, especially the hockey matches, where he literally draped himself in the maple leaf by wearing a Canadian hockey jersey. There are few politicians (aside from the forever dour Michael Ignatieff, it appears) who would forego the opportunity to bask in the shared glory and nationalistic fervour.
Harper, politically wounded by his unpopular decision to prorogue Parliament, certainly needed the boost. More than that, however, it’s clear that his Conservative government is hoping to capitalize on Olympic fervour to implement an agenda that might not be so universally popular.
At every opportunity, government spokespeople evoke the unprecedented success of Canadian athletes, their record-setting gold medal haul and huge public effort needed to pull off what turned out to be an extraordinary event (despite the annoying cultural tone-deafness of its organizers).
For instance, when I was in Ottawa for a meeting of federal civil service union leaders on March 3, the Tories’ powerful Treasury Board President, Stockwell Day, stopped by to chat about the coming budget and the economic challenges Canada faces. But almost half his talk was spent on the Olympic performance and the wonderful new spirit that is evident across the land.
It’s an uncomfortable echo of the bald propaganda that used to accompany the Olympics during the Cold War, when politicians from either side of the ideological divide would use their country’s success as evidence of the superiority of their respective political systems. The ultimate, of course, was the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler only allowed members of the so-called Aryan race to compete for Germany as an expression of his belief in racial supremacy.
That’s an extreme example. But it came to mind when the federal government’s Speech from the Throne on March 3 twice evoked the Olympic spirit while outlining a sharp right turn in national policy. The next day, with the release of the federal 2010 budget we were presented with a business-friendly agenda featuring spending cuts, a salary freeze for public workers (which means salary cuts, in reality), the elimination of environmental safeguards and allowing the sell-off of media-telecom companies to foreign interests.
It’s a breathless display of greedy mean-spiritedness all wrapped up in the flag with a mission to overcome debt and deficit foes.
If only it were true. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty forecasts budget deficits totalling $158 billion over the next four years, but that figure would be far lower but for his government’s plan for deep business tax cuts. Over the next five years, business will receive almost $55 billion in tax breaks.
“We are staying the course to having the lowest corporate income tax rate in the G7 (group of industrial nations) by 2012,” Flaherty boasted during his budget speech.
Add to that another $300 million in tariff savings for manufacturers, and higher subsidies for technology industries. And, oh yes, while social programs face funding cuts, the Tories will double funding for Own the Podium. The elite athletic program will get another $34 million, a bargain for a government that pays off in effective cover for its otherwise unpalatable agenda.
And, in the end, the rightwing view may be true to what the Olympics have become: a way to sell Coca-Cola, raise television ratings, and clean city streets of those annoying and unsightly poor people who persist in littering the landscape. Certainly, the chain-link fence that surrounded the Olympic flame in Vancouver was symbolic of a certain truth. Most of us are on the outside, looking in, and treated as potential criminals if not outright enemies.
Given that thinking, the heart of the Olympic spirit as the Tories see it follows logically: we must all tighten our belts so that banks and foreign multinational corporations can get even richer. It lends new meaning to going for the gold. In reality, we give up the gold and the Conservatives and their business backers will own the podium.