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The Helena Guergis Scandal, Through Kiwi Eyes

April 19, 2010

Helena Guergis may be naughty and annoying, but she does not really have tentacles. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

I have to admit that all this nonsense about Helena Guergis and Rahim Jaffer is the kind of political news that reliably makes my eyes glaze over. Start with an undistinguished Tory politician in a minor cabinet position that arguably doesn’t need to exist in the first place (Minister of State for Status of Women). Throw in a nasty meltdown in an airport on Prince Edward Island, a husband with bad habits and unsavoury friends, and rumours of shady dealings in Belize and parties involving prostitutes and cocaine, and I suppose our undistinguished politician becomes a loose cannon that needs to be moved well below the decks of the Good Ship Harper and perhaps even hurled unceremoniously overboard. It’s an episode that ought to be good for a few questions in parliament and salacious articles in newspapers, but the extent to which the tiresome details of the Guergis and Jaffer saga have dominated the political and media agenda of late is discouraging and reflects badly on Canadian public life.

I agree with Ottawa Citizen columnist Susan Riley that a piece of histrionic rhetoric by Michael Ignatieff was particularly uncalled for:

Why, Ignatieff wanted to know, did the prime minister do nothing for months “while Mr. and Mrs. Jaffer attached their tentacles to the neck of government and slowly dragged it down?” For those who track such things, this metaphorical overkill may mark a new low for the Liberal leader and a moment when the mood in the Commons shifted from sport to cruelty.

When politicians start comparing each other to monstrous cephalopods, it’s generally a good idea to take a deep breath and cast about for a fresh perspective. Fortunately, the shenanigans last week roughly coincided with a visit to Canada by John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Key was genially baffled by all the fuss about Guergis, but offered a pithy explanation:

Prime Minister John Key, who visited Ottawa earlier in the week, told the New Zealand Herald the Guergis-Jaffer affair “shows that universally sex sells.”

At his joint news conference with Harper on Wednesday, the New Zealander looked on bemused as journalists asked the Canadian leader about the Guergis matter.

“I don’t even claim to understand it nor could I even understand the question, given that it was in French,” Key told the newspaper.

“But it sounds interesting.”

Key’s take on things seems about right. Guergis’ antics are “interesting”, but hardly worth getting too exercised over. As for sex selling, it seems unlikely that the story would have attracted such absurd levels of attention if not for the titillating murmurs about Guergis and Jaffer being seen in the company of “busty hookers”. One article that I saw even referred stiffly to “allegations about… consorting with prostitutes”, a prim, almost Victorian-sounding phrase that speaks volumes regarding Canada’s prissy approach to the oldest profession. It’s hard to know what Key would make of this, considering that he comes from an enlightened country where prostitution is entirely legal and a facility such as Auckland’s Club 574 (yes, it’s a brothel, but the content on the website is extremely mild) is just a business that can be taxed and regulated like any other. By all accounts New Zealand’s experiment with legalisation has worked out rather well, too.

Guergis and Jaffer aside, perhaps the real scandal last week was that John Key’s visit was apparently the first to Canada by a Prime Minister of New Zealand in 11 years. New Zealand may be a small island nation on the other side of the world, but it’s also a country that shares our monarch, much of our heritage, and more than a few of our sensibilities – a kind of sister on the British side of the family, as opposed to the French side. New Zealand is not likely to ever become a major trading partner or military ally, but there’s much to be gained by cooperating on projects such as securing nuclear materials and by comparing notes on problems and issues that are common to both countries. We should reject the tyranny of geography and forge a closer relationship, and of course that goes for Australia as well.

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