This originally appeared in the October 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine. Illustration by Alan King.
You’re the Holiday Inn of towns. People come in, stay a while, sometimes do dirty things. Yet you clean up the mess and carry on.
So when the election’s over, you’ll be ready for what happens. Sure, there may be some tears behind the stairs, but you’ll get through. Sure, you’ll get no respect. You pretend you’re Tokyo or Washington or Paris or London or Rome or Berlin, but you’re really Brussels.
As I write this, I have no idea whether the Harper government will lose. It should. I wrote a book full of reasons (which are now, conveniently, in a modestly priced but sturdy paperback). But I did leave out one reason, and I think it may be the one that resonates with voters: it’s time for a change. Unless you’re aging Scotch, working for a pension, or married to the right person, nine years is enough time for anything.
When a politician comes to power with toddlers at home and is still running for re-election when they’re in college, it’s time to go. When a car that cost $30,000 at the beginning of a term is now a beater that can’t pass the air-quality test, it’s time to go. When every dog that was young and spry at the beginning of a leader’s term is now either dead or barely limping along, it’s time to go.
Ottawa will always be there. I moved here at the beginning of the Chrétien term, when there was a Canadian Tire on Kent Street and the Peace Tower hadn’t been buried by government and lobbyist office buildings. But even though it’s starting to look like a real city (rather than just a bigger version of Peterborough), Ottawa is still a small government town.
So this town will somehow manage the government that is formed after October 19. If it can enable a bunch of naive, well-meaning, populist prairie boys to turn into the most vicious group of governing thugs that has ever run the country, this city can work its magic on anyone
Ottawa’s divorce courts can handle the new MPs. (If the long-standing trend holds, about half of all the married MPs who are elected in October will be divorced in their first term. Some will hook up with staffers; others will seduce the babysitter.)
Like Brussels, Ottawa is the capital of a gigantic, loose federation of autonomous states that care little for each other and have vast differences in culture, peoples, and history. Our national parliament apes the one in London but has become about as useless as the European parliament.
And yet Ottawa moves along. After all, we have Beavertails, the Market and, at least for now, the Ottawa Senators. (The hockey team — like herpes, the real senators on Parliament Hill will always be with us.)
Ottawa normally absorbs those who fall out of the money tree. They say this is a Liberal town, but many in Brian Mulroney’s administration were able to hang on and make a good buck in lobbying or polling if they had some social skills.
But sometimes even Holiday Inns lose their patience. In 1967, members of The Who busted up a room at the Holiday Inn in Flint, Michigan. Keith Moon, who crossed the river years ago, destroyed a piano, threw people off balconies into the swimming pool, and blew up a toilet. The two surviving members of The Who are still banned for life.
I suspect the same fate awaits most of the Harper crowd. They have fought so hard to hang on because most of them know that this is it. They have risen so far, so fast because of the favour of one strange leader. They have been able to exercise a frightening level of power over the public service, silencing scientists and trying to change our country into a warrior nation.
For the rest of us, this is one time when the phrase “fear and loathing” still fits. We don’t respect these people as government professionals — and we don’t like them.
If they win, they will try to finish their project. If they lose, they will find Ottawa a very cold place. There will be no soft landing, no university sinecures, no $500 shots on punditry panels, no law-office partnerships, no corner offices in lobby firms.
Because this time, when Ottawa changes the sheets, they’ll be sent down to the laundry to be boiled and bleach-ed. Then the room will be ready for the new occupants. And there will be a warm Beavertail in the room.