Between the lines of the letters

Posted on March 5, 2008 in Debates, Governance Debates – comment – Between the lines of the letters
March 05, 2008
Jim Coyle

Is it possible Jim Flaherty’s trapped in some sort of time warp?

The federal finance minister, who’s made a fetish lately of disparaging the Ontario government of Premier Dalton McGuinty, seems under the delusion that he defeated John Tory in 2004 and is, in fact, provincial opposition leader.

He sounds to be labouring under the misapprehension there’s great appetite in this province for a return to the gratuitous personal animosity of the Harris years.

And he seems not to have noticed that even in America, the most ardent of neo-cons – Newt Gingrich, David Frum – have abandoned the carnivorous attack on government and all its works and are urging a more moderate course.

Trying to fathom the mind and motives of the minister, during this ongoing war of words, has been a popular pastime at Queen’s Park.

To that end, there are several levels on which to parse the letters written in recent days by McGuinty and Flaherty. There is what they say, but also how they say it.

Often, form reveals more about an author than was intended; tone can affect readers almost as much as content.

In McGuinty’s letter of complaint to Prime Minister Stephen Harper about Flaherty’s denigration of Ontario, the tone was of restrained anger and the disbelief at another’s mischief.

McGuinty complained of the damage done by Flaherty’s undercutting, explained what his own policies hoped to achieve and urged greater respect between the two levels of government.

Flaherty’s reply was, as any bickering husband and wife will recognize, a classic of its kind in how to make a bad situation worse.

“May I remind you” were its opening words – rarely a good start in persuading anyone of anything, a superior-sounding opener that instantly raises the hair on your neck.

Then, the first paragraph was all about Jim. The word “I” was used six times – more than McGuinty used the first-person singular in three pages.

Five times, Flaherty began paragraphs with “Mr. McGuinty,” which as anyone repeatedly called “sir” by a cop can attest is the excessive use of an honorific not necessarily intended to convey respect.

“I am not about to sit quietly …” “You may take offence to my comments, but …,” “Like it or not …”

With phrases like that, it doesn’t take a psychiatry degree to suspect ego, anger and control issues.

That’s why Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s response this week, in a speech Monday to the Toronto Board of Trade, was so shrewd. As in judo, he artfully used Flaherty’s own blustering momentum against him.

Of Flaherty’s citing of economists to bolster his insistence on the need for business tax cuts, Duncan noted that well, yes, economists are good guides, but not gods.

Even a year ago, he said, none of note forecast the Canadian dollar above par or oil topping $100 a barrel. “Yet here we are.”

He pointed out that many of those provinces with lower corporate tax rates are able to do so on the strength of equalization subsidies from Ontario.

Most of all, he brought Flaherty’s insults out of the headlines and into living rooms. When Flaherty insults Ontario, Duncan said, “he’s not talking about me or Dalton McGuinty,” it’s “about the people.”

Very likely, Ontarians didn’t need much help divining that. Polls suggest McGuinty has the backing of a healthy majority.

And around most political poker tables, 56 per cent of voters beats six “I”s in a paragraph any way you cut it.

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