Within touching distance

The National Post reports this week that police will not lay charges against two protestors who "came within touching distance" of Stephen Harper at an event in Vancouver.

The National Post reports this week that police will not lay charges against two protestors who “came within touching distance” of Stephen Harper at an event in Vancouver. Dressed as waiters, Sean Devlin and Shireen Soofi stood onstage beside the prime minister and held up signs demanding climate justice.

A Vancouver Police spokesperson told the press, “After consultation with both (the RCMP and the Crown), it was determined that it wasn’t in the public’s best interest to pursue an investigation into criminal charges.” At press time, the Nordicity research team was unable to substantiate a rumour that Department of Justice staff are working round the clock to draft a bill imposing mandatory minimum sentences for unauthorized proximity to the prime minister.

If there is any doubt that Canada needs a bill to protect the PM from unwanted closeness, surely it is banished by the case of Awish Aslam, a 19-year-old University of Western Ontario student who attempted to attend one of Harper’s 2011 election rallies. Fortunately, alert staff had taken the trouble to check Aslam’s Facebook page, where she had posted a picture of herself posing with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, and she was summarily ejected from the meeting.

A few days later Conservative staff were forced to remove a group of students from a rally at the University of Guelph after learning that they had earlier participated in a “vote mob,” a kind of student demonstration aimed at encouraging young people to participate it the election. Imagine the consequences if dangerous radicals such as these were able to enter the prime ministerial presence.

It’s one thing to encourage young Conservatives to vote, but given the fact that the young are disproportionately left-leaning, attendance at a vote mob is clearly a radical act. If given access to the PM’s rally, who’s to say the vote mobbers wouldn’t have held up signs calling for non-Conservative youth to exercise their right to vote?

The law as it stands provides no penalty for trying to attend a Conservative Party or government of Canada function without permission from the prime minister’s staff. If left uncorrected, this hole in the criminal code could open the door not only to inappropriate proximity, but also to the unbridled expression of unauthorized opinion.

All kinds of unsavory characters would like to gain proximity to the PM. Take Jim Lowther. Himself a veteran of two foreign wars, and the founder of the Veterans Emergency Transition Team, Lowther attempted to enter a Harper rally in Nova Scotia and was stopped at the door. In comments to the press, Lowther admitted that he hoped to meet with the prime minister and talk to him about homeless veterans.

Had Lowther managed to get close to the PM he might have used the occasion to point out that, while eager to milk the flag-draped coffins of dead soldiers for all the cheap jingoistic publicity they’re worth, the Conservative government has made a policy of screwing every dime it can get out of services to soldiers who survived. Clearly such radical fact-mongering can’t be allowed to proceed within the prime minister’s aura.

Chief among the Canadians whose access to the prime minister must be strictly controlled are the members of the media. While prime ministers before him braved the scrum on Parliament Hill, Harper accepts only five vetted questions per press conference.

During Harper’s 2013 Arctic tour, Li Xue Jiang of the People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper, tried to squeeze in a sixth, unauthorized, question and had to be dragged to the back of the room by two members of the RCMP. A loophole in the law prevented the police from marching the miscreant off in handcuffs and tossing him in the deepest dungeon.

What’s to come next? Will reporters breach the prime minister’s ring of privacy and demand that he answer unscripted questions? Will they come within touching distance and raise uncomfortable issues? Will Canadians be forced to hear dissenting voices and witness real debate? In short, will the prime minister lose control of the message?

Probably not. According to the Hill Times, there are now 1,500 communications staffers working for government, 87 in the direct service of the prime minister. Add these to the Conservative Party and RCMP security staff who work together to protect Harper from having to answer to the media or the public, and it’s clear that access to Canada’s prime minister is as tightly controlled as it is to even the strongest of dictators around the world.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.