Our very own ship of fools

On a trip to Ottawa, while ambling down O’Connor Street, I came across a poster hanging in the window of one of those discount stores you know won’t be around when autumn leaves start falling.

The picture, about the size of a dish cloth, was a flamboyantly framed reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th century satirical canvas, The Ship of Fools. In it, the artist depicts a cast of characters engaged in acts of mindless merriment, drifting ever farther from shore: The essence of folly, especially the folly of those who don the trappings of leadership only to find themselves wholly unsuited to govern their own, let alone other people’s, lives.

How it came to be there, of all places, among the velvet Elvises, cheap Asian knock-offs and seized inventory from bankrupt businesses was a tale the sullen cashier was either unwilling or unable to tell. But if I wanted it, it would cost me five bucks.

As I stepped back onto the street, a cool wind from the river, where Parliament Hill rises in gothic grandiosity, tugged at my scarf, and I wondered if I had paid too much for my ostentatious trinket.

After all, vulgarity does seem garishly abundant in the capital these days.

Indeed, when Bev Oda, Minister of International Cooperation, goes abroad she undergoes a mystifying transformation during which she is able to channel the attitudes and predilections of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, who, reportedly, spent $5 million on a shopping tour of New York, Rome and Copenhagen in the 1980s before dispatching a government plane to ferry Australian sand to a beach resort near her official residence.

By comparison, Oda’s excesses are bush league. Nevertheless, Canadians were not amused to learn, this spring, of the cabinet member’s decision, last year, to forgo a stay at a five-star hotel in London – where she attended a conference on, incongruously enough, immunizing children in poor countries – in favour of a $2,000, three-night sojourn at the swank Savoy on the Strand because, there, she was allowed to smoke in her room (at twice the non-puffer’s price) between $16 glasses of orange juice.

Still, what’s a few dollars between friends?

An even more egregious abuse of position, perhaps, was Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ recent assertion that those who refuse to stand behind his bill to vastly expand the online surveillance powers of the police (no judicial warrant required) do, by implication, stand “with the child pornographers.” Forget due process or the rule of law. The price of eternal vigilance is privacy, or maybe even democracy, itself.

Then again, if accurate information about public spending programs is the hallmark of representative government, over at the Department of National Defence, democracy is only a matter of opinion. There, Minister Peter MacKay delights in armed combat with the nation’s Auditor-General and opposition members of Parliament. How much will the F-35 jet fighter program cost? Well, that all depends. It could be $9 billion, or $16 billion or $25 billion. We don’t really know. Sit tight, folks. We’ll get back to you.

Everywhere, it seems, in official Ottawa, gross indecencies against public service and other assorted imbecilities flood the gunnels of the once-good ship of state. Meanwhile, reasonable dissent is lambasted as fanaticism, and even the government’s natural allies are wrongly portrayed as obstreperous.

Never mind that the 24-year-old National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a creature of the Mulroney era, takes as its guiding principle a commitment to consensus building, bringing together, as it has, “hundreds of leaders and experts with first-hand knowledge in a diversity of areas.”

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird justifies its orchestrated extinction on the grounds that it endorses a carbon tax most Canadians don’t support. The fact that it doesn’t, and never has, only serves to bring a smile to the faces of the court jesters, drunk on the mead of their majority.

Today, I’m staring at Bosch’s The Ship of Fools, which now hangs in my office above my computer, and marveling at the great fun they’re having on their rudderless ride – at their sheer joy in their unaccountable unaccountability – and wondering when, if ever, the boom will fall.

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