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April 21, 2011

An open letter to Stephen Harper

Dear Prime Minister: I am writing today, in the midst of what is quickly developing into the most exciting federal election this country has seen in months, to commend you for your own excellent campaign and to apologize for any slights that I or any of my fellow fiction writers might have directed against you in the past.

Many of us fictionists had initially assumed that Mr. Ignatieff, as a novelist in his own right, would be our man in this election, but what your campaign has amply shown is that where fiction is concerned, the Harper Conservatives are without rivals.

Nowhere is your mastery of fiction more evident than in your decision to run on your economic record when you don’t actually have one.

Smart of you to take credit for Canada’s financial stability in the current global recession when it was exactly neoconservative policies like yours that unraveled the economy south of the border, and shamefacedly socialist ones, put in place before your party even existed, that protected our own. (I don’t know if you remember, for instance, a certain Liberal decision back in 1998 to pull the plug on some major bank mergers.)

Then, instead of decrying the blatantly Keynesian stimulus package your minority government was forced into passing, one that has racked up deficits not seen since the days of that notorious closet Trotskyite Brian Mulroney, you have brilliantly managed to embrace this left-wing travesty, one that betrayed every principle for which your party stands, as a triumph of neo-conservatism.

Perhaps I misspeak myself, however, when I talk about a betrayal of principle. That is to imply the existence of an actual principle to betray, and hence to overlook how deeply fiction informs every aspect of your political project. Your Keynesian flip on deficit spending, for instance—and this from a finance minister who once swore he would rather spend a month on a desert island with Jack Layton than run a deficit—takes on a Proustian elegance when seen in the light of the fiction of policy that has marked your party since its inception.

We all remember your boldness in throwing out years of work on setting up a national childcare program of the sort they have in developed countries and instead offering families cash for their kiddies to let the grandparents look after them or the unlicensed pedophile down the street. “Family values,” you said, with your smile (okay, the smile still needs work), cleverly suggesting the fiction of social policy for what was actually vote-buying on a scale even Sir John A. Macdonald would have envied.

And of course the great beauty of a fictional policy as opposed to a real one—a point the other parties do not seem to have cottoned onto—is that it requires absolutely no effort on the government’s part, and entails absolutely no risk. Instead, every year families send money into the government in the form of taxes, and every month the government sends a tiny bit of it back, the only cost being the massive bureaucracy required to keep all this machinery in motion.

Over the past five years you have employed strategies of this sort on every front. For vote-buying-masquerading-as-policy, nothing has beaten your GST reduction—why don’t the other parties think of these things? why are they always going on boring rants about health care and the environment and education as if these mattered more than extra cash for a new flat screen TV?—while your law and order campaign has taken fiction to heights even Dan Brown has not dreamed of, employing tax dollars you don’t have in amounts you don’t know to achieve results that are unproven against a threat that doesn’t exist.

A recent study into corporate tax cuts showed that, contrary to your party’s view, corporations tend to hoard tax savings rather than create jobs with them. Confronted with these facts, your finance minister, Mr. Flaherty, admitted they made your tax policy a “tough sell,” but said he would stick with it because corporations and the experts liked it, and, “most importantly, because it’s a confidence builder in Canada, and a way of branding Canada.”

Clearly, Mr. Flaherty has studied the art of fiction at the feet of a master, showing, here, how even logic is no obstacle to the expert fictionist. Branding, indeed: I can almost feel the pleasant burn of those cuts in my flesh, along with the pride of knowing that in Canada, at least, fiction reigns, and what matters is not whether a policy works but only if people believe in it, or at least believe that they can make others believe.

Politics is nothing if not the art of making others believe. So kudos to you, Mr. Harper for sparing us in this campaign any view of the real Stephen Harper, in all his nakedness—and the mind balks at such a notion even as mere metaphor—and giving us the fictional one, infinitely more complex and convincing.

In so doing you have given inspiration to all of us for whom fiction is a way of life.

Let me end, then, with my own fiction, namely my hope that on May 2nd you get the majority we all believe you believe you deserve, and we can look forward to the spectacle of five more glorious years of the Harper Government (formerly known as the Government of Canada).

Sincerely, Nino Ricci

Nino Ricci is one of English Canada's most prominent novelists. His books include the celebrated 'Lives of the Saints' trilogy; 'Testament', a fictional retelling of the life of Jesus; 'The Origin of Species', a current national bestseller; and a biography of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His work has been recognized by many literary prizes, including two Governor General's Awards for fiction, the Trillium Award, and the inaugural Alistair MacLeod Award for Literary Achievement. Nino Ricci is a Past President of the Canadian Centre of International PEN, a human rights organization that works for freedom of expression.

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