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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Drab politicians got you down? The old Master of Mariposa might cure what ails you

By ROY MacGREGOR
Globe and Mail
Friday, Sep. 19, 2003

ORILLIA, ONT. — The Master would be amused.Sitting at the edge of the luncheon setting that is still laid out in Stephen Leacock's airy writing room in his summer home on the shore of Old Brewery Bay is an open copy of the local Packet and Times, dated Tuesday, Feb. 29, 1940.

"Why Be Disappointed?" reads the most prominent advertisement facing the legendary Canadian humorist's empty plate.

The ad was placed by the Conservative Party, imploring potential supporters in the coming election to ensure their names are on the voting lists.

"If there is any doubt," the ad pleads, "phone 1428."

That number, of course, is no longer in use.

The concern about voter turnout, however, is as fresh today as it ever was in the years before Leacock's death in 1944.

One can only imagine what the Master and his pen would make of all that is going on lately in the pages of his morning papers. Not when the bestselling book of the moment is about a farting dog from New Brunswick, not when a case of the sniffles is enough to keep a member of Parliament from voting on whether the country is ready for same-sex marriage, not when an aide to a federal cabinet minister has such a hollow leg he must write off not one but two meals in a single evening -- and most assuredly not when the only political insult of an entire provincial campaign concerns a nobody calling a somebody "an evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet."

Leacock, of course, would hardly have been so polite. "Harsh is the cackle of the little turkey-cocks of Ottawa," he wrote in 1907 for University Magazine, "fighting the while as they feather their mean nests of sticks and mud, high on their river bluff."

The Master would have surveyed the first three weeks of the Ontario campaign and wondered, head shaking and bushy moustache fluttering, where all the fun was. No one smiles; no one cracks jokes, unless unintentional; no one seems to have the slightest sense of how to enjoy oneself in a campaign that, in the end, isn't likely to change all that much anyway.

Even NDP Leader Howard Hampton, the closest thing this cautious provincial dance has to a Happy Warrior, has a staff member stand in or perhaps sit in for him when the dunk tank makes its appearance.

And none of the leaders, apparently, recognized the absurdity of all three of them showing up in Carleton Place this week for exactly the same photo opportunity -- Tory Ernie Eves, Liberal challenger Dalton McGuinty and Hampton all sitting on big tractors the way youngsters at pioneer theme parks sometimes get their pictures taken as if they're locked up in the stockade.

Leacock would certainly see the fun in it, just as he did in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town when he grinned staring down at the blank sheet and wrote, "I only know that it was a huge election and that on it turned issues of the most tremendous importance."

He might today take the unique issue in the north, roaming bears, and the unique issue in the south, overcrowded classrooms, and combine the two to solve both with a single stroke of his pen.

He might pick up the local paper, still the Packet and Times, and read that someone had thrown a brick through a front door on Atherley Road and he would have the local police force investigating to see if the broken glass lay inside the house or out on the walk -- and if on the walk conclude that the owner had already had enough of door-to-door canvassers in this election.

And he might look at the growing possibility of the Liberals replacing the Tories at the Ontario provincial level, as well as the remote possibility of the federal Tories and the Canadian Alliance merging to form a new force in Parliament, and beg the voters to read "The Great Fight for Clean Government."

There was another time, they would discover, when certain opinion makers became so fed up with the status quo that they demanded wholesale change. They founded the Clean Government Association and set out to mobilize the population to clean up the mess.

The people thought it a marvellous idea. They joined in droves. Service clubs endorsed the organization and soon the leading citizens of the day -- and even the newspapers -- came on board.

"It was," the Master of Mariposa wrote, "a foregone victory from the first -- overwhelming and complete. The cohorts of darkness were so completely routed that it was impossible to find them."

And no wonder.

What the people had done in their wisdom was put in exactly the same government -- under a brand-new name.



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